When I first started reading, I couldn't get Kung-Fu Panda out of my head. Jack Black chasing his dream of being a Kung-Fu artist while working hard in a noodle shop. It was all about the noodles. The pho, and its integral part of the lives of the men who devour the soup made by one of the novel's main characters, Old Man Hung, takes a central role. And I couldn't stop seeing a giant panda balancing a bowl of pho on his head. It took a while to get passed that silliness that my brain created, and it took a while for me to get into this novel. Vietnam makes for an interesting setting, its customs, the after-effects of the war, the divided nature of the politics that define the modern state, they all combine to create something exotic (and I hate to use that word but it fits) that balances the very real and human interests of the novel with something different, something more.
The unrequited love that Old Man Hung has for the neighbour, Lan, was the thread throughout the book that I most appreciated. His love for her lasted decades, and she wronged him in a way that couldn't be forgiven, and how it all comes together in the end was fitting, strong and ultimately lovely. The novel is about generations, fathers and sons, respecting your elders, daughters searching for stories of their fathers, and about how politics turns into something so much more real when one is faced with the colossal change over the last forty years. Change comes quickly and change sometimes shows the utter strength of all of the people in this novel. Hung, his adopted family in Tu and Binh, Maggie, a Vietnamese-American trying to find her father, and Lan, their lives intertwine in ways that you don't expect when the book opens, and it ends in ways you don't expect. It's a solid journey in between. It's not Sweetness, but it's a very good book, even if it feels uneven, and even maybe unfinished in certain ways. It's almost as if the book needed something more to pull it all together, the human relationships work on one level but I was looking for something a little deeper. Maybe I was expecting too much.
It's funny, the only other Canadian novel that I've read set in Vietnam, David Bergen's The Time In Between, felt kind of the same way -- the setting, as much as it informed the novel, as much as it defined the novel, also served to alienate the novel in ways that, as a reader, I felt often throughout the narrative. However, Gibb is such a lovely writer, has such a way with human emotion, with weaving important political meaning and messages with her more personal stories of the people living through the revolution, through the Humanity Movement itself, and consistently reminds us that art has to be worth dying for, that even the novels failings can be overlooked.