Guilt, sadness, resentment. Trauma. In childhood, we experience the world as creatures of intensity. Our memories remain clear yet marred, the pain of trauma cutting through all senses in recollection, even as we become adults.

Madeleine Thien’s novel, Simple Recipes, recounts the fictional stories of individuals from different backgrounds and locations as they look into their childhoods and relationships in their search for closure.

Set in Vancouver, Thien weaves a realistic portrayal of innocence and trust, as well as guilt and sadness, in her characters’ recollection of their traumatic experiences as children. The stories in the book range from childhood disciplinary violence, abandonment to sexual assault and alienation within the family, causing the family structure to fall apart.
 

Set in Vancouver, Thien weaves a realistic portrayal of innocence and trust, as well as guilt and sadness, in her characters’ recollection of their traumatic experiences as children.

In the first story of the collection (named “Simple Recipes”), the narrator is the daughter of an immigrant Malaysian family who immigrated from their home country to Montreal and then settled in Vancouver. While she has never learned her parents’ mother tongue due to having been born and raised in Vancouver, her brother “forgot it, or refused [to speak] it” (7), although he was born in Malaysia and immigrated with their parents to Canada. His refusal to eat the food their father prepares and his complete rejection of their heritage cause the tension between the narrator’s brother and father to escalate further. When her brother starts choking on the food, their father calls him “ungrateful” (15) and slaps him hard across the face. In anger, her brother grabs a fork and stabs him in the chest, saying their father is “…just [a] chink” and that he “[wishes he] wasn’t [his] father[.]” (14). As a punishment, her brother is beaten with a bamboo pole, “rip[ping] the skin on [his] back” (15) and drawing blood in the process. The narrator watches in horror, “[wanting] to cry out, [ and move] into the room between them” (15), but finds herself paralyzed by fear.

The narrator’s unconditional love for their father transforms into a more complex relationship, where his violence towards her brother “[turns] all her love to shame and grief” (18), unable to love him because he is “complicated… {and] human” (19). Even as an adult, she struggles to “reconcile [everything she] know[s] of him and still love him[.]” (19). In the end, the violence within their family causes irreparable damage to their relationships with each other.

In the end, the violence within their family causes irreparable damage to their relationships with each other.

Children occupy an interesting position in the midst of conflict within the family: involved, yet, outsiders and observers to the events themselves. Their moments of vulnerability, together with seemingly innocent words and actions, feed into a narrative they cannot comprehend, where the adults involved must know the entirety of the truth in the situation. When in reality, adults only know and trust their own interpretations of why children say and act the way they do. Their assumptions quickly transform into facts in their minds, not bothering to uncover the truth behind children’s words and actions. They punish children as if they were adults themselves, capable of calculated behavior with the sole purpose of hurting them. As a result, children are further isolated from their parents, cornered into a position where they are expected to know the exact crime they commit against their parents and accept punishments deemed worthy of their actions without pain and resentment.

Helpless and alone, they are forced to watch the disintegration of their family from beginning to end. Emotions like guilt, sadness and regret attach themselves to these memories in the aftermath of such traumatic events, the pain unbearable in the children’s inability to understand their family’s circumstances and the resulting violence and isolation.

Emotions like guilt, sadness and regret attach themselves to these memories in the aftermath of such traumatic events, the pain unbearable in the children’s inability to understand their family’s circumstances and the resulting violence and isolation.

What renders Thien’s novel so effective and powerful is its poignant reflection of human nature. As adults, we experience no difference in recalling traumatic childhood memories. Over and over again, we review these memories with careful scrutiny. What could we have done differently to prevent such trauma? The answers continue to elude us, like fine sand sifting through our fingers. We yearn for release from torment, doubt and responsibility in our role in bringing about the pivotal crisis which ruined us. We grow up saving all our questions for the careless actions and thoughtless words that hurt us deeply in the past, expecting our parents to provide the answers as we turn into adults. We ask for a moment of clarity which would explain everything that went wrong and who to hold accountable for all our suffering. Instead, we learn that they do not have all the answers either. We are only, always, left with the sadness of regret.

 


Image via Pixabay. License: CC0 1.0 Universal.

 

Works Cited:

Thien, Madeleine. Simple Recipes. Vintage Canada, 2016.