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By Kim Thuy
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer
Note: this book was written in French 2013 but translated into English in 2014. On account of that, some of the information about it online might be based on the French version.
Knowing Kim Thuy's past - like the characters of both this novel and her debut Ru, she was born in Vietnam and moved to Canada - I can't help but wonder if her work is meant to be taken as autobiographical to a degree. If so, that would slot her in with many other writers whose work straddles the boundary between fiction and nonfiction. It would also go a long way toward explaining the issues that I have with Mãn, especially speaking as someone who enjoyed Ru. See, the two novels end up covering a lot of the same ground. Both of them are about a woman's attempts to adjust to their transcontinental move, both are told in the form of short vignettes, both even play on the ambiguities of their titles. Mãn, this novel's protagonist, is unfulfilled although her name suggests fulfillment, while the word "ru" means both stream in French and cradle in Vietnamese.
So I'm left to wonder that Thuy might be repeating herself. Mãn is a book of many strengths, such as Thuy's vivid approach to the vignette form and her careful attention to the peculiarities and dynamics of human relationships. We see this in how Mãn herself interacts with her three mother figures and her husband and her lover. These interactions are key to the novel's plot, which chronicles Mãn's escape from Vietnam, her settling in Canada with a husband and restaurant, and her affair with a chef. Put simply, Kim Thuy writes well, and it isn't as though the writing has regressed at all from Ru. There are even aspects that feel a little sharper, most notably stronger characters. Her characters seem a little less passive here, but also more complexly divided. So Mãn is torn not just between countries but also models and identities, where in Ru she seemed more pulled between her two countries than anything else. The subplot about her third mother, who moves her out of Vietnam and becomes a spy, is also intriguing.
With all that said, I was bothered by her decision to repeat the vignette form of Ru to tell such a similar story. While she's gotten better at writing character, I don't see enough change in how she uses her form to justify a reuse. She still keeps these short and lyrical, still experiments with an impressionistic, almost stream-of-consciousness timeline, and covers a lot of the same thematic ground as Ru. So if this is your first Kim Thuy read, you might like it more than I do. Since I had her first novel for context, I couldn't help but see it as a little disappointing, despite its substantial strengths.
Out of 10: 7.6