Author: Camilla Gibb
ISBN: 978- 1594202803
Release Date: March 2011
Publisher: Penguin Press
Genre: Literary Fiction; Historical Fiction
Rating: 5 out of 5
" As Vietnam struggled toward independence, Dao’s poems reached into an uncertain future, contrasting images of Vietnamese peasants in Parisian zoos with those of human pyramids shaped like pagodas, allied Vietnamese workers with hands raised toward yellow skies. Some of these poems were eventually published in Fine Works of Spring, the first publication Dao and his colleagues produced.
Upon reading that journal by the bitter melon light of the oil lamp in the back room of his shop, Hung had felt the words do a perilous dance on the page. The illustrations vibrated with hidden meaning. His skin tingled and his ears burned as he read a poem about the hard times that had befallen the North since 1954. It was a risky topic to raise, one that might lead the Party to charge a person as an agent acting on behalf of the imperialists in the South.
When Hung tried to return the journal to Dao the following morning, Dao insisted it was his to keep. “Because you are one of us,” he said. “One of our movement to keep the beauty of humanity alive.”
Old Man Hung, the enlightened proprietor of the beloved pho stall, has survived decades of poverty and political upheaval. Hung once had a shop that served as a meeting place for dissident artists. As Maggie discovers, this old man may hold the key to both her past and her future.
Among Hung's most faithful customers is Tu', a dynamic young tour guide who works for a company called New Dawn. Tu' leads tourists through the city, including American vets on war tours, but he has begun to wonder what it is they are seeing of Vietnam-and what they miss entirely. In Maggie, he finds a young Americanized woman in search of something quite different, leading him beyond his realm of expertise. In sensual, interwoven narratives, Maggie, Hung, and Tu' come together in a highly charged season that will mark all of them forever.
The Beauty of Humanity Movement is a skillfully wrought novel about the reverberation of conflict through generations, the enduring legacy of art, and the redemption and renewal of love. The story of these characters is tinged with longing for worlds and loved ones lost but also filled with the hope that faith can heal the pain of their shared country's turbulent past. This is the distinct and complex story of contemporary Vietnam, a country undergoing momentous change, and a story of how family is defined-not always by bloodlines, but by heart.
My Thoughts: I was unfamiliar with The Beauty of Humanity Movement, never having heard of the book or its author, Camilla Gibb, when TLC Books gave me the opportunity to review it. I researched Ms. Gibb and read about her other three books. The result being I found myself looking forward to reading The Beauty of Humanity Movement more than I'd originally anticipated. I was not disappointed. It is a beautifully written, engrossing story linking Vietnam's tortured, painful history during Ho Chi Minh’s regime with a present filled with proud countrymen intent on honoring their ancestors and celebrating contemporary Vietnam.
Camilla Gibb's writing is seamless, carrying you through the story with an elegant flow. She paints beautiful scenes as she writes, using just enough detail to enable us to visualize the characters and places on the page, but not so much that the story gets over-burdened and bogged down in specifics. When I took a break from reading and thought about the story, I realized the complexity of Vietnam's history and the rich history of the country I'd learned through Ms. Gibb's skillful story telling and captivating characters. Ms. Gibb makes the era of Ho Chi Minh's communist regime and the political upheaval in Vietnam during the 1950s more understandable by relating history through different individuals whose lives were impacted by the struggle.
The characters in The Beauty of Humanity Movement are what really make the story enticing. Ms. Gibbs excels at creating primary as well as secondary characters that have compelling histories and fascinating personalities with enough quirks that not only do we like them but we hope to see more of them. Old Man Hung was my favorite, a wise, intelligent, kind man with an understanding of human nature and sense of humor. He's burdened by many regrets from his past relating to his family, to the woman he has loved for years but doesn't speak with and to Dao, his great friend. Dao is the father of Binh and the grandfather of Tu, who are, for all intents and purposes, Hung's family now. Dao died at the hands of the Party and though Hung honors Dao daily, guilt for so many things plagues him. Hung no longer dreams about a better future for himself but continues to offer hope as well as sustenance to other Vietnamese. He never misses a morning to provide them his life-affirming, nourishing pho (a beef noodle soup) before they go off to their daily jobs despite the difficulty of finding a spot for his cart. And Hung's always available to speak to Binh, Tu or any of his neighbors in the ghetto. When Hung meets Maggie, his desire to help her forces him to reach back into his past and remember the painful days of political upheaval when artists gathered in his pho cafe, long gone now.
Ms. Gibbs illustrates the differences between Americans and Vietnamese through Maggie, a Vietnamese woman who grew up in America. Some would call her Viet Kieu, which means "inferior Vietnamese" or a traitor, a refugee. Maggie is familiar with Vietnamese history as a result of her love for and study of art and knowing her father, Ly Van Hai, was an artist at the time Ho Chi Minh was in power. She wants to find out what happened to him after never joining Maggie and her mother in America as he promised. After more than a year of searching, she finally met Hung and hopes he can give her some answers. Maggie, like Hung, understands people and realizes that artistic expression may result in art she doesn't like, but the artist shouldn't be condemned for that. Tu comes to understand this after talking to Maggie. Initially Tu believed respect for elders couldn't be reconciled with distasteful art.
Tu is a young man still finding his way in the world. He's been raised with traditional Vietnamese values by his parents, Binh and Anh, who worked very hard for many years to own their home. Tu is ambitious and, as a tour guide, expects to make a lot of money quickly. He is out of touch with Vietnam's history of political upheaval during Ho Chi Minh’s time in power. Tu is representative of Vietnam's current transitional phase and changing times. To him, the attractions he shows to tourists are just a part of the job. The irony is that he wouldn't have this job if not for the struggle of people like Ly Van Hai and Dao, who suffered and sacrificed for the freedom of writers and artists specifically as well as the Vietnamese people in general.
The book's title, The Beauty of Humanity Movement pays tribute to artists like Maggie's father and Dao, who suffered at the hands of the Party and were sent to rehabilitation camps. It was there they were tortured because they refused to advertise Party slogans and heed their orders. The title is also symbolic of Vietnam today, where the people have the freedoms to become successful. It also describes the beauty of people generally, such as Old Man Hung, who was so willing to help Maggie, Binh, Tu and their family, who opened their home to Hung and Maggie. Ms. Gibbs intertwines the history of these characters to give us a powerful and rich story about the enduring legacy of art, hope for a better future, inspiration, love, redemption and the ties that unite us.
The Beauty of Humanity Movement is a book, that, despite it's deceptively simple writing style, is complex and layered. There's insight into Vietnam, it's past and present. There's also quite a bit to learn about people in general and artists in particular. Ms. Gibb has taken on a variety of issues here, and handled them thoroughly, smartly and with an ability to weave them together to tell a captivating story that draws us in because of the important messages as well as the believability of its characters. I loved this beautiful story and cannot recommend it enough. This may be the first of Camilla Gibb’s books that I’ve read but it certainly won’t be the last. Thank you to Trish and Lisa at TLC Book Tours for bringing The Beauty of Humanity Movement to my attention.
Camilla Gibb’s website
I received a copy of The Beauty of Humanity Movement through TLC Books for review.