‘Simple Recipes’ by Madeleine Thien

Like many authors, Madeleine Thien is best-known for her novels, but her debut collection, Simple Recipes(2001) is well worth the detour. Most of the stories concentrate on young Malaysian Canadians and their relationships with their parents. In the opening (and title) story, for instance, an adult narrator looks back fondly at memories of her father cooking dinner, memories that are also tinted with violence. As the story reveals, her father, who could “transform […] orange peels into swans”, make a sprig of green onion bloom like a flower by placing it in water, sit “for an hour mining a watermelon with a circular spoon [and] carve […] the rind into a castle”, was also capable of killing a fish for dinner in the kitchen sink, and striking her brother. The tensions between the father’s creativity, his frustration and powerlessness in a new land, and his children’s own grappling with their identities, are wonderfully captured in this contained and seemingly straightforward but dense story. I couldn’t agree more with Alice Munro’s praise for the collection: “This is surely the debut of a splendid writer. I am astonished by the clarity and ease of the writing, and a kind of emotional purity”.

First published in Simple Recipes, McClelland and Stewart, 2001. Also published in Trek, Fall 2002 and available to read here in pdf form