Book Review - The Beauty of the Humanity Movement

Old Man Hung makes the best pho in Hanoi. Having lost the shop he inherited from his uncle, Hung lives in a shanty town on the outskirts of the city and travels by foot to set up his noodle-soup stall wherever he can. Two of his most loyal customers are the carpenter Binh and his son Tu, who works as a tourist guide.

Many years earlier, Camilla Gibb's novel explains, Binh's father, Dao, had led a dissident group, "The Beauty of Humanity Movement". In 1956, two years after independence, Dao's group of artists and intellectuals would breakfast in Hung's cafe. They published a literary journal and a magazine aimed at fostering artistic expression and political debate. Their work, deemed critical of the hardline communist government, resulted in their arrests. Members disappeared. One of the dissidents, Ly Van Hai, a painter, managed to escape from a labour camp with the help of a nurse, whom he later married. Fifteen years later, just before the fall of Saigon, Van Hai's wife and young child fled to America.

Now in her thirties, Van Hai's daughter, Maggie, returns to her homeland to try to learn more about the father she left behind. Hung may hold some of the answers but his memory is not what it used to be. He has had his own run-ins with Party officials, who stripped him of his shop – his only remaining friends are Binh and Tu. The three men find themselves drawn to Maggie and resolve to try to help her.

Camilla Gibb has created a fascinating portrait of modern Vietnam, "the optimism and energy of the place, with its doors thrown open to the west, its new wealth and possibilities". But as Maggie discovers in Hanoi, much of its history has been erased and for most people a brutal past is best left forgotten. While the older generation recoil at Maggie's American accent and remain distrustful of her "watered-down and inferior species of Vietnamese", the young hanker for a western lifestyle – watching illicit movies and listening to rap.

Gibb has done her research, basing the dissident circle on a group, led by the revolutionary poet Phan Khoi, that actually existed. Phan Khoi appears as a minor character. The collision between the personal and political, the overlapping of the characters' stories and the tracking of their past and present lives reveal the human connections that unite us all.

Originally published in the Independent on 3 May 2011