Madeleine Thien’s Simple Recipes (2001)

I heard Madeleine Thien read from this collection in 2001 in a small library theatre in London, Ontario; I recall that she was very gracious and spoke of being honoured to appear with the other women who were reading that night. (I heard Joan Barfoot, Bonnie Burnard and Jane Urquhart read in that theatre: one of them may have been sharing the stage.)

She was soft-spoken and gentle-mannered, yet direct and confident too. After the event, I read a couple of the stories, but only this summer did I return to it, reading through it steadily and contentedly.

Even though the stories circle around traumatic events, and you might expect an edge to their unfolding, there is a tenderness to their telling. Families fragment and individuals erode, but the emotions are distilled, so that one feels a simmering sadness – beneath the depression and rage, guilt and loss – while life goes on.

This passage from “Dispatch” hints at the twinning of political and personal losses against a backdrop of perseverance:

“While your marriage stutters on, revolutions rise and fall, blooming on the midday news like some kind of summer flower.”

The final story is the longest and contains echoes of Do Not Say That We Have Nothing, as the story revolves around a family shattered by revolution and resettlement. The grown characters who left Indonesia behind did not really leave behind their country or, at least, they did not sever ties in the way that some of the characters assumed.

“Despite the violence and the political tension, my parents missed Indonesia. It came out in small ways, their English interrupted by a word of Chinese, a word of Indonesian. The exotic exclamations at the end of their sentences, ah yah!, or calling me to dinner, makan makan. My mother told me that irian, a Biak word, means ‘place of the volcano’ and that jaya, an Indonesian word, mean ‘success’. But those were the only Indonesian words I learned.”

These questions of belonging-but-not-belonging and longing-inwardly-while-outwarding-denying-it contribute to a sense of unease throughout the story, even alongside some poignant scenes (for instance, when the father takes the young daughter to work with him at the furniture store when she is not feeling well enough to go to school).

These questions play out on a broader scale but also within family units, so that there are many opportunities to observe a child’s perspective of their parent(s). The title story is a striking example of this, which recalls Alice Munro’s “Royal Beatings”:

“When I was a child, I did not love my father because he was complicated, because he was human, because he needed me to. A child does not know yet how to love a person that way.”

This story has also forever changed the way that I cook rice. And I think that’s one of the reasons that I respond so viscerally and completely to Madeleine Thien’s storytelling, which simultaneously captures the most ordinary details and the most expansive themes.

In one moment, this:

“He was nothing like our father. Tom’s face was handsome and strong, and his hair, light blond, curled in tufts. Our father’s face was dark and sad. Our father combed his hair with Brylcreem until it shone. He smelled of eucalyptus and cooking and warmth. But he and Tom looked at Irene with the same expression, mixed-up sadness and love and strange devotion.” [Four Days from Oregon]

And in another moment, this:

“She believes in her own recklessness. It is the only faith she has.” [Bullet Train]

And beneath both of those moments, a lingering change in my reality, as I rinse my own grains of rice, prepare them for a meal, and think back to this story.

But the story which I cannot escape is “Alchemy”.

“They slept in separate room, Mom on the couch and Dad in the bedroom. Sometimes they sat in the same room though neither of them would acknowledge the other. They had perfected it, made it an art to see something but believe it wasn’t there.”

Here we have a concrete observation about one set of parents, which is stunning on the surface. But simmering beneath is the concept of absence and silence, a moment in which readers can realise that this is a writer who is just as preoccupied by (perhaps even more preoccupied by) what is not discussed, what is not seen.

This is true, too, of the crux of “Alchemy”, wherein the main character does not tell something that she should have told, does not admit to herself that she has seen what she has seen. But even though her guilt is overwhelming (as much so as in the title story), it is an even greater absence which haunts this story.

If Madeleine Thien was a different kind of storyteller, I would beg her to continue this story.

But, then, if she was a different kind of storyteller, I would not have been so profoundly affected by her work.

Not only by what she tells, but by what she does not tell.

Have you read Madeleine Thien’s work? Or, is she on your TBR?

Contents: Simple Recipes, Four Days from Oregon, Alchemy, Dispatch, House, Bullet Train, A Map of the City



  1. Kate September 27, 2018 at 6:38 pm - Reply

    I read this the year that it came out, and all that I can remember about it 17 years later is that it was… unmemorable? I wonder if I might appreciate it more now that I’m no longer 24 years old.

    • Buried In Print September 28, 2018 at 7:28 pm - Reply

      That’s probably true for many books: I feel like I should reread everything that I read in my twenties to see how much it and I have changed.

  2. Naomi September 27, 2018 at 1:03 pm - Reply

    I have the same question as Whispering Gums… what changes have you made to cooking your rice?!

    I like this one: “When I was a child, I did not love my father because he was complicated, because he was human, because he needed me to. A child does not know yet how to love a person that way.” This is so true, but I have never read it anywhere before.

    • Buried In Print September 28, 2018 at 7:26 pm - Reply

      I think this comes up in the first story in Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women too; I’ll have to reread to know for sure, but I know one of Del’s stories travels this territory too.

      As for the rice, I will admit that I have always been a lazy rinser, but, no longer. You’ll have to read the story to find out all the secrets. Mwaahahahaha. (Sorry: Whispering Gums. I realize this might be harder to locate in Australia. :))

      • Naomi September 28, 2018 at 8:04 pm - Reply

        It’s been WAY too long since I read Lives of Girls and Women. Another one I’d love to re-read. I’m pretty sure it was my first Alice Munro and that I read it in 1st year university. That’s a long time ago.

        Gasp! Oh, our library has it – I will just look it up the next time I’m working in adult fiction. Do you think I will remember?

        • Buried In Print September 29, 2018 at 9:12 pm - Reply

          It was on the course syllabus for first year for me, too, but the professors elected for something else instead. I’d love to reread it too.

          I suppose it depends: how often do you cook rice? How much have you enjoyed her other writing? 🙂

  3. Rebecca Foster September 27, 2018 at 2:24 am - Reply

    I read Do Not Say we Have Nothing when it was on the Booker list, but haven’t read anything else by Thien yet. I really like the sound of this one, especially from the quotes you’ve shared.

    • Buried In Print September 28, 2018 at 7:21 pm - Reply

      And here you are…in a short story frame of mind. Perfect timing! 🙂

  4. annelogan17 September 26, 2018 at 12:25 pm - Reply

    She’s always been on my TBR! I still haven’t read Do Not Say we Have Nothing, but I’m dying to read it.

    • Buried In Print September 26, 2018 at 1:02 pm - Reply

      You’ll fall into it when the time is right, I’m sure. I found it very absorbing, so I expect you’ll find it reads more quickly than you might be thinking, when you do get to it.

  5. A Life in Books September 26, 2018 at 10:06 am - Reply

    Lovely review, and such eloquent quotes! I’m particularly taken by the last one you’ve picked out. I’ve yet to read any Thien and this sounds a good place to start.

    • Buried In Print September 26, 2018 at 12:59 pm - Reply

      I believe it’s the perfect place to start. It might be tempting to start with her more famous but also nice to have those in the wings.
      BTW I picked up Jon McGregor’s The Reservoir Tapes at the library today – IIRC I learned about these through ALiB. rubs palms

  6. Definitely the Opera September 26, 2018 at 9:40 am - Reply

    I love this collection. Not least because–unlike most of recent CanLit–it’s about class, almost every story.

    • Buried In Print September 26, 2018 at 1:50 pm - Reply

      It’ll be on my list of favourites for this year, I believe. And I love how you can see all the themes which appear in her later works here, and not in a half-explored/young-writer way, but on their own terms. (Nice to “see” you!)

  7. Buried In Print September 26, 2018 at 6:43 am - Reply

    Adding this comment for Whispering Gums:

    “I just wrote a reply and hit Post Comment to have it disappear because of invalid id or some such.

    Now, I can’t recollect exactly what I said except that I love that you started this in 2001, but only finished this now; and I want to know what changes you made to your rice cooking!

    Oh, and I said I really liked the way you wrote about this collection. It’s not always easy writing about a collection.”

    • Buried In Print September 26, 2018 at 7:19 am - Reply

      Thanks, WG! That’s probably why I often post on single stories (and always on singles, when it comes to Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant): a collection is a lot to summarize in a post because it’s like covering 8 or 10 or 12 novels in a short piece, although somehow we think of one of those tasks as possible and the other as ludicrous! I’m sorry you’re having problems with the commenting; in the spring, I made the updates to the site which we thought might have been causing you trouble, so I just can’t figure what’s happening. Sometimes I have weird problems if I just close/lift the lid to use my PC for a few sessions and a proper restart gets things working smoothly again (mysteriously) but you likely already tried that.

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