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‘If I Had Your Face’ by Frances Cha ****

I have wanted to read Frances Cha’s debut novel, If I Had Your Face, since it was published in 2020. It is a novel which I have seen everywhere since, and it has been, almost without exception, incredibly well received. Helen Oyeyemi, for instance, deems it ‘glittering, engrossing’, and Nell Zink ‘troubling, kaleidoscopic and highly enjoyable’.

If I Had Your Face is set in contemporary Seoul, South Korea. It focuses upon four young women, who are ‘struggling to survive’, and are ‘balancing on the knife-edge of survival’ on the fringes of the city. Seoul is a place where ‘plastic surgery is as routine as getting a haircut… and [where] ruthless social hierarchies dictate your every move.’ The novel circles around the concept of physical beauty, which can affect your life in South Korea just as much as a premium education does; unless you are lucky enough to attend one of the premium universities in the country, it is almost impossible to work for a top company, or to progress to an executive level. At the heart of If I Had Your Face is the competitiveness which is found at every level of society in Seoul, and the way in which it captures and suffocates people.

Kyuri works at a ‘room salon’, where wealthy businessmen go to be ‘entertained after hours’. Her ‘hard-won status’ at the salon is affected, around the halfway point of the novel, when she makes a mistake with a client, which reverberates through the salon. Miho, Kyuri’s flatmate, is an orphan, given a scholarship to a prestigious art school in New York. Here, her life ‘became tragically enmeshed with the super-wealthy offspring of the Korean elite’, something which follows her when she moves back to Seoul after graduating. Ara, their neighbour, is a hair stylist, obsessed with a K-pop band, and mute following a traumatic incident. Their downstairs neighbour, Wonna, is a little older than these young women; she lives in the same cheap office-tel building with her husband, as they cannot afford much more on their combined salaries, and is expecting a baby after a series of miscarriages.

Kyuri works at a ’10 percent’ room salon, deemed as she is to be in the top 10 percent of the prettiest girls in the industry. She is recognised everywhere she goes for her beauty, although much of this has been augmented, or completely altered, by plastic surgery. Ara describes her as ‘electrically beautiful’, going on to comment: ‘The stitches on her double eyelids look naturally faint, while her nose is raised, her cheekbones tapered, and her entire jaw realigned and shaved into a slim v-line.’ Room salon workers like Kyuri are expected to get their hair and makeup done by professionals every single day.

Cha writes at length about the widespread use of plastic surgery in Seoul; it is given to very young women, and is something which many aspire to have. Ara recalls that, whilst at high school, every girl in their class was offered half-price eyelid surgery by the husband of one of their teachers. Cha reveals just how much emphasis is placed upon beauty by society, and how every woman is expected to conform to such exacting standards; the other skills and talents of women tend to pale in comparison to how they look. The operations which women continually put themselves through are brutal, and unnecessary. Ara’s flatmate, a twenty two-year-old woman named Sujin, wishes to become a room salon girl. During her initial appointment at a plastic surgery clinic, the doctor tells her that as well as double eyelid surgery, she also ‘needs to get both double jaw surgery and square jaw surgery, desperately’, alongside a cheekbone reduction, and liposuction on her chin.

The stark reality of trying to live in Seoul is revealed by Wonna; she reflects: ‘Unless you are born into a chaebol family or your parents were the fantastically lucky few who purchased land in Gangnam decades ago, you have to work and work and work for a salary that isn’t even enough to buy a house or pay for childcare, and you sit at a desk until your spine twists, and your boss is somehow incompetent and a workaholic at the same time and at the end of the day you have to drink to bear it all.’ Wonna had a difficult childhood with her cruel grandmother, whilst her father worked in South America. ‘It was the greatest irony in the world,’ Wonna remembers, ‘that she had taken in the child of the son who humiliated her the most, she often said to me.’

I liked the way in which all of the women lived in the same apartment block; this is a simple yet effective tool to tie their different stories together. Their rent in the office-tel is ‘dirt cheap’, but only because they live on the fourth floor, a number which promotes superstition in Asian cultures. Cha has made her narrative voices distinctive, and it is easy to differentiate between them. I liked the way in which each of her characters are on different trajectories, working in different industries, and struggling with myriad problems. I really enjoyed the approaches which Cha took throughout If I Had Your Face; she gives an awful lot to think about, whilst providing a cast of compelling and believable characters, and introducing Western readers to the stark realities which exist in Seoul.

I hadn’t read much about the ‘dark side’ of Seoul before picking up If I Had Your Face. The concept of the room salon was new to me; they are largely seedy establishments, from the research which I have done since, which are bound up with prostitution. Ara’s character describes the room salons like so: ‘… now that I know what to look for, I see one on every side street. From the outside, they are nearly invisible. Nondescript signs hang above darkened stairways, leading to underground worlds where men pay to act like bloated kings.’ The Korea which Cha reveals feels a completely different world, and I admit that I found it quite shocking at times.

If I Had Your Face is a rich and accomplished first novel. Cha gives a lot of commentary about different worlds colliding, particularly the rich with the poor, the disparities between different generations, and the grave inconsistencies to be found between Korea and the West. My only criticism is that I feel that the physical city of Seoul could have been made better use of; much of the narrative here is focused upon character rather than place, and a great deal of the action occurs in bland interiors, rather than out in the city. Regardless, I was so interested throughout in each of the characters and their perspectives, and believed entirely in their realistic cares and worries. One really comes to understand each woman here, and Cha gives her readers a great deal to think about. I very much enjoyed this satisfying novel, and look forward to whatever Cha turns her hand to next.

4

Armchair Travelling: Korea

My boyfriend and I had planned to travel to South Korea last year; evidently it did not happen.  Like almost everyone else, the majority of my travelling since March 2020 has been through the medium of books.  I am so keen to go to South Korea – I am obsessed by its food, its films, its fashion – but until I can safely step on a plane and explore properly, I thought I would gather together some books in case anyone wishes to join me in armchair travelling.  I have read the first of these, and count it as one of my favourite novels, but the others are high on my wishlist.

1. Please Look After Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin ***** (review here) 9720572
When sixty-nine-year-old So-nyo is separated from her husband among the crowds of the Seoul subway station, her family begins a desperate search to find her. Yet as long-held secrets and private sorrows begin to reveal themselves, they are forced to wonder: how well did they actually know the woman they called Mom?  Told through the piercing voices and urgent perspectives of a daughter, son, husband, and mother, Please Look After Mom is at once an authentic picture of contemporary life in Korea and a universal story of family love.

6132182. When My Name Was Keoko by Linda Sue Park
Sun-hee and her older brother Tae-yul are proud of their Korean heritage. Yet they live their lives under Japanese occupation. All students must read and write in Japanese and no one can fly the Korean flag. Hardest of all is when the Japanese Emperor forces all Koreans to take Japanese names. Sun-hee and Tae-yul become Keoko and Nobuo. Korea is torn apart by their Japanese invaders during World War II. Everyone must help with war preparations, but it doesn’t mean they are willing to defend Japan. Tae-yul is about to risk his life to help his family, while Sun-hee stays home guarding life-and-death secrets.

3. The Calligrapher’s Daughter by Eugenia Kim 6400109
In early-twentieth-century Korea, Najin Han, the privileged daughter of a calligrapher, longs to choose her own destiny. Smart and headstrong, she is encouraged by her mother—but her stern father is determined to maintain tradition, especially as the Japanese steadily gain control of his beloved country. When he seeks to marry Najin into an aristocratic family, her mother defies generations of obedient wives and instead sends her to serve in the king’s court as a companion to a young princess. But the king is soon assassinated, and the centuries-old dynastic culture comes to its end.  In the shadow of the dying monarchy, Najin begins a journey through increasing oppression that will forever change her world. As she desperately seeks to continue her education, will the unexpected love she finds along the way be enough to sustain her through the violence and subjugation her country continues to face? Spanning thirty years, The Calligrapher’s Daughter is a richly drawn novel in the tradition of Lisa See and Amy Tan about a country torn between ancient customs and modern possibilities, a family ultimately united by love, and a woman who never gives up her search for freedom.

299837114. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Pachinko follows one Korean family through the generations, beginning in early 1900s Korea with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them all. Deserted by her lover, Sunja is saved when a young tubercular minister offers to marry and bring her to Japan.  So begins a sweeping saga of an exceptional family in exile from its homeland and caught in the indifferent arc of history. Through desperate struggles and hard-won triumphs, its members are bound together by deep roots as they face enduring questions of faith, family, and identity.

5. I Have the Right to Destroy Myself by Young-Ha Kim 797192
A spectral, nameless narrator haunts the lost and wounded of big-city Seoul, suggesting solace in suicide. Wandering through the bright lights of their high-urban existence, C and K are brothers who fall in love with the same woman – Se-yeon. As their lives intersect, they tear at each other in a struggle to find connection in their fast-paced, atomized world.  Dreamlike and cinematic, I Have the Right to Destroy Myself brilliantly affirms Young-ha Kim as Korea’s leading young literary master.

175915606. My Son’s Girlfriend by Mi-Kyung Jung
At once an ironic portrayal of contemporary Korea and an intimate exploration of heartache, alienation, and nostalgia, this collection of seven short stories has earned the author widespread critical acclaim.

7. The Guest by Hwang Sok-Yong 1447640
Based on actual events, The Guest is a profound portrait of a divided people haunted by a painful past, and a generation’s search for reconciliation.  During the Korean War, Hwanghae Province in North Korea was the setting of a gruesome fifty-two day massacre. In an act of collective amnesia the atrocities were attributed to American military, but in truth they resulted from malicious battling between Christian and Communist Koreans. Forty years later, Ryu Yosop, a minister living in America returns to his home village, where his older brother once played a notorious role in the bloodshed. Besieged by vivid memories and visited by the troubled spirits of the deceased, Yosop must face the survivors of the tragedy and lay his brother’s soul to rest.  Faulkner-like in its intense interweaving narratives, The Guest is a daring and ambitious novel from a major figure in world literature.

175915728. No One Writes Back by Eun-Jin Jang
Communication—or the lack thereof—is the subject of this sly update of the picaresque novel. No One Writes Back is the story of a young man who leaves home with only his blind dog, an MP3 player, and a book, traveling aimlessly for three years, from motel to motel, meeting people on the road. Rather than learn the names of his fellow travelers—or even invent nicknames for them—he assigns them numbers. There’s 239, who once dreamed of being a poet, but who now only reads her poems to a friend in a coma; there’s 109, who rides trains endlessly because of a broken heart; and 32, who’s already decided to commit suicide. The narrator writes letters to these men and women in the hope that he can console them in their various miseries, as well as keep a record of his own experiences: “A letter is like a journal entry for me, except that it gets sent to other people.” No one writes back, of course, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some hope that one of them will, someday…

Have you read any of these?  Which have piqued your interest?  I am also keen to make this ‘Armchair Travelling’ a mini series on the blog, so please let me know if you’d like recommendations from a particular country.

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One From the Archive: ‘Please Look After Mother’ by Kyung-Sook Shin *****

First published in 2018.

I chose to read Kyung-Sook Shin’s novel, Please Look After Mother, for the South Korea stop on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.  Please Look After Mother has sold almost 1.5 million copies in South Korea alone since its publication in 2009; the author is one of the country’s most widely read and acclaimed novelists, and has won many literary prizes throughout her career.  The book was a highly anticipated one for me, and I was so looking forward to getting to it.  The English translation, published in 2011, has been masterfully handled by Chi-young Kim.

The reviews on the book’s cover piqued my interest even further, it must be said.  Edwige Danticat writes that it is ‘Cleverly structured and brimming with secrets and revelations’, and Geraldine Brooks that ‘Shin penetrates the very essence of what it means to be a family, and a human being.’

Please Look After Mother tells the story of Park So-nyo, a wife and mother, who has ‘lived9780753828182 a life of sacrifice’.  She is recovering from an earlier stroke, which has left her ‘vulnerable and often confused’.  She and her husband decide to travel from their countryside home to Seoul, to visit their grown-up children.  At the central train station, she becomes separated from her husband when the doors of the busy train close.  The family soon begins an enormous search effort for their matriarch, reflecting on everything which she has done in her life for them: ‘As her children and husband search the streets, they recall So-nyo’s life, and revisit all the things they never told her.  Through their piercing voices, we begin to discover the desires, heartaches and secrets she harboured within.’

The novel opens with the following line: ‘It’s been one week since mother went missing’.  Throughout, varied perspectives are used; the voices of her daughter, son, and husband, as well as So-nyo herself have been deftly crafted, as have the second and third person perspectives, the latter of which has been used to oversee various parts of the search.  Each of these narrative voices feel effective, particularly that of the second person; we as readers are immediately immersed into the Park family’s story, particularly with direct writing such as this: ‘You clammed up.  You didn’t find out about Mother’s disappearance until she’d been gone four days.  You all blamed each other for Mother going missing, and you all felt wounded.’

So-nyo’s complex character is pieced together fragment by fragment.  This technique gives a real depth to her, and is a very revealing and effective manner in which to tell such a story.  So-nyo’s family begin to realise just how important she is to them, and the many ways they have taken advantage of her, or taken her for granted over the years.  Their own mistakes, both collective and individual, glare out at them: ‘You don’t understand why it took you so long to realise something so obvious.  To you, Mother was always Mother.  It never occurred to you that she had once taken her first step, or had once been three or twelve or twenty years old.  Mother was Mother.  She was born as Mother.  Until you saw her running to your uncle like that, it hadn’t dawned on you that she was a human being who harboured the exact same feeling you had for your own brothers, and this realisation led to the awareness that she, too, had had a childhood.  From then on, you sometimes thought of Mother as a child, as a girl, as a young woman, as a newly-wed, as a mother who had just given birth to you.’

The family dynamics which are portrayed here, and the ways in which they shift and alter over time, are both fascinating and believable.  Shin has given such a lot of thought to the ways in which such a disappearance will impact upon, or change, each member of the Parks; each reaction is different.

Please Look After Mother is rightly described in its blurb as ‘compassionate, redemptive and beautifully written’.  This absorbing novel tackles an awful lot of important themes, all of which have been translated to the page with such care and consideration.  Please Look After Mother is a loving and poignant portrait of a missing woman.  The novel is filled with tenderness and affection, but it never crosses the line into sentimentality.  Shin’s prose is beautiful throughout, and the translation is fluid.  Thoughtful and thought-provoking, as well as intense and moving, Please Look After Mother is a novel which I doubt I will ever forget.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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Around the World in 80 Books: My Top Ten

I officially completed my Around the World in 80 Books challenge back in April, having started on the first of January this year.  The project has been both delightful and enlightening, and I have so enjoyed immersing myself in so many portrayals of countries and their very diverse cultures.  Whilst I have no plans to repeat the challenge in coming years (particularly as I found it rather difficult to find a single tome which I was interested in from several of my previously chosen countries), I have found the process to be a wonderful one.

I chose to travel to one continent at a time, beginning with my home country, and sweeping through each of them in turn.  If you wish to see a full itinerary of this year’s ‘travels’, then please click here.

I thought that it would be a nice idea to gather together my favourite books which I encountered during my challenge.  They are in no particular order, but I thoroughly enjoyed each and every one of them, and highly recommend them.  Included alongside them are snippets of my reviews.

 

1. Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart (France)
I really enjoy Mary Stewart’s fiction; all of her books are markedly different, despite sharing similarities in terms of traits and characterisation. As ever, Stewart’s real strengths here come with setting the scene, and building her protagonists. Nine Coaches Waiting, which takes place just a few miles away from the Swiss border, has a wonderfully Gothic feel to it.

2. The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas (Norway) cover-jpg-rendition-460-707
Much of Vesaas’ writing is given over to the landscape within the more pivotal moments of The Ice Palace. His descriptions of ice and snow are varied, and startlingly beautiful. When she reaches the ice palace, he writes, for instance, ‘Unn looked down into an enchanting world of small pinnacles, gables, frosted domes. Soft curves and confused tracery. All of it was ice, and the water spurted between, building it up continually. Branches of the waterfall had been diverted and rushed into new channels, creating new forms. Everything shone.’

3. Please Look After Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin (South Korea)
So-nyo’s complex character is pieced together fragment by fragment. This technique gives a real depth to her, and is a very revealing and effective manner in which to tell such a story. So-nyo’s family begin to realise just how important she is to them, and the many ways they have taken advantage of her, or taken her for granted over the years. Their own mistakes, both collective and individual, glare out at them: ‘You don’t understand why it took you so long to realise something so obvious. To you, Mother was always Mother. It never occurred to you that she had once taken her first step, or had once been three or twelve or twenty years old. Mother was Mother. She was born as Mother. Until you saw her running to your uncle like that, it hadn’t dawned on you that she was a human being who harboured the exact same feeling you had for your own brothers, and this realisation led to the awareness that she, too, had had a childhood. From then on, you sometimes thought of Mother as a child, as a girl, as a young woman, as a newly-wed, as a mother who had just given birth to you.’

97818702068084. Dew on the Grass by Eiluned Lewis (Wales)
Movement, particularly with regard to the younger characters, has been captured beautifully: ‘Released at length from the spell of Louise’s eye and the cool, leafshadowed nursery, they danced out on the lawn, shouting, hopping with excitement, ready for something adventurous, scarcely able to contain their glee.’ The natural world of Lewis’ novel has been romanticised in the gentlest and loveliest of manners; it never feels overdone or repetitive, and is largely filled with purity and charm.

5. The Colour by Rose Tremain (New Zealand)
‘Tremain gives a marked consideration to colour in her novel from its very beginning.  She writes: ‘It was their first winter.  The earth under their boots was grey.  The yellow tussock-grass was salty with hail.  In the violet clouds of afternoon lay the promise of a great winding-sheet of snow.’  I was struck by Tremain’s writing immediately.  She has such a gift for seamlessly blending her vivid descriptions with her characters, and the actions which they take.  There is a timelessness to Tremain’s prose, despite the effective rooting of her novel in a very particular period and setting.  She uses her chosen framework in order to explore many different themes relating to expatriation, nature, and human nature, particularly with regard to the ways in which changing conditions alter the relationships between husband and wife, and son and mother.’

6. Guiltless by Viveca Sten (Sweden)
I had not read the first or second novels in the series, but that did not seem to matter at all. I found that it worked very well indeed as a standalone novel. Guiltless takes part on a small island in the Swedish archipelago named Sandhamn, and is engaging from its very first page. Throughout, the novel is really well plotted and structured, and its translation is fluid. The sense of place and characters are well built, and I found Guiltless overall to be so easy to read, and so absorbing.

7. The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna (Croatia) 17237713
From the outset, the male narrative voice which Forna has crafted is engaging, and I was immediately pulled in. There is such a sense of place here, and it has definitely made me long to go back to Croatia. Another real strength of The Hired Man is that quite a lot is left unsaid at times; these careful omissions make the story even more powerful.

8. Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra (Chile)
Ways of Going Home uses a structure of very short, and often quite poignant, vignettes. These are made up at first of retrospective memories and memorials from the narrator’s childhood, and then from his adulthood. This structure works wonderfully; I often find that books made up of vignettes build a wonderful story, allowing us to learn about the characters, as well as the conditions under which they live, piece by piece. Zambra’s writing style is gripping from the very first page; it begins in the following manner: ‘Once, I got lost. I was six or seven. I got distracted, and all of a sudden I couldn’t see my parents anymore. I was scared, but I immediately found the way home and got there before they did. They kept looking for me, desperate, but I thought they were lost. That I knew how to get home and they didn’t.’

97800071729179. Eight Months on Ghazzah Street by Hilary Mantel (Saudi Arabia)
Well written, as Mantel’s work always is, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street is culturally fascinating. It gives one a feeling for the city of Jeddah, where Frances and Andrew settle, immediately, as well as Frances’ position within it. Her life soon feels very claustrophobic, largely unable, as she is, to leave the block of flats in which the couple live; this is due to the incredibly subservient position of women in the male-dominated society, which leaves her – a trained cartographer – unable to work, as well as the stifling heat which grips the city for most of the year. Frances has been made almost a prisoner in her own home, and has to rely on the friendship of the other women in the building to wile away those long, hot hours in which Andrew is working.

10. Two Under the Indian Sun by Jon and Rumer Godden (India)
I have read quite a few of Rumer Godden’s books, many of which have been reissued by Virago in the last few years, but I have never come across anything of Jon’s before. I loved the idea of a collaborative memoir, particularly one which focuses almost exclusively upon their childhood, which was largely spent in India. Two Under the Indian Sun covers several years, in which the girls were taken back to their parents in East Bengal, now a part of Pakistan, after the outbreak of the First World War.

 

Have you taken part in this project before?  If not, have you been inspired to?  Which are your favourite reads from around the world?

Purchase from The Book Depository

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‘Please Look After Mother’ by Kyung-Sook Shin *****

I chose to read Kyung-Sook Shin’s novel, Please Look After Mother, for the South Korea stop on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.  Please Look After Mother has sold almost 1.5 million copies in South Korea alone since its publication in 2009; the author is one of the country’s most widely read and acclaimed novelists, and has won many literary prizes throughout her career.  The book was a highly anticipated one for me, and I was so looking forward to getting to it.  The English translation, published in 2011, has been masterfully handled by Chi-young Kim.

The reviews on the book’s cover piqued my interest even further, it must be said.  Edwige Danticat writes that it is ‘Cleverly structured and brimming with secrets and revelations’, and Geraldine Brooks that ‘Shin penetrates the very essence of what it means to be a family, and a human being.’

Please Look After Mother tells the story of Park So-nyo, a wife and mother, who has ‘lived9780753828182 a life of sacrifice’.  She is recovering from an earlier stroke, which has left her ‘vulnerable and often confused’.  She and her husband decide to travel from their countryside home to Seoul, to visit their grown-up children.  At the central train station, she becomes separated from her husband when the doors of the busy train close.  The family soon begins an enormous search effort for their matriarch, reflecting on everything which she has done in her life for them: ‘As her children and husband search the streets, they recall So-nyo’s life, and revisit all the things they never told her.  Through their piercing voices, we begin to discover the desires, heartaches and secrets she harboured within.’

The novel opens with the following line: ‘It’s been one week since mother went missing’.  Throughout, varied perspectives are used; the voices of her daughter, son, and husband, as well as So-nyo herself have been deftly crafted, as have the second and third person perspectives, the latter of which has been used to oversee various parts of the search.  Each of these narrative voices feel effective, particularly that of the second person; we as readers are immediately immersed into the Park family’s story, particularly with direct writing such as this: ‘You clammed up.  You didn’t find out about Mother’s disappearance until she’d been gone four days.  You all blamed each other for Mother going missing, and you all felt wounded.’

So-nyo’s complex character is pieced together fragment by fragment.  This technique gives a real depth to her, and is a very revealing and effective manner in which to tell such a story.  So-nyo’s family begin to realise just how important she is to them, and the many ways they have taken advantage of her, or taken her for granted over the years.  Their own mistakes, both collective and individual, glare out at them: ‘You don’t understand why it took you so long to realise something so obvious.  To you, Mother was always Mother.  It never occurred to you that she had once taken her first step, or had once been three or twelve or twenty years old.  Mother was Mother.  She was born as Mother.  Until you saw her running to your uncle like that, it hadn’t dawned on you that she was a human being who harboured the exact same feeling you had for your own brothers, and this realisation led to the awareness that she, too, had had a childhood.  From then on, you sometimes thought of Mother as a child, as a girl, as a young woman, as a newly-wed, as a mother who had just given birth to you.’

The family dynamics which are portrayed here, and the ways in which they shift and alter over time, are both fascinating and believable.  Shin has given such a lot of thought to the ways in which such a disappearance will impact upon, or change, each member of the Parks; each reaction is different.

Please Look After Mother is rightly described in its blurb as ‘compassionate, redemptive and beautifully written’.  This absorbing novel tackles an awful lot of important themes, all of which have been translated to the page with such care and consideration.  Please Look After Mother is a loving and poignant portrait of a missing woman.  The novel is filled with tenderness and affection, but it never crosses the line into sentimentality.  Shin’s prose is beautiful throughout, and the translation is fluid.  Thoughtful and thought-provoking, as well as intense and moving, Please Look After Mother is a novel which I doubt I will ever forget.

Purchase from The Book Depository

1

Reading the World: ‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang ***

We turn to South Korea for today’s installment of my Reading the World project.  The Vegetarian (2007) is the second of Han Kang’s books which I’ve read to date, and is again translated by Deborah Smith.  It also won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016.  On reflection, I must say that I far preferred Human Acts (you can read my review of it here).  That said, The Vegetarian is undoubtedly a novel full of complexities, and makes for an incredibly interesting reading choice.

9781846276033The Vegetarian is a book which I’m sure most of you will have heard of, if not read; the vast majority of my Goodreads friends, for instance, have either loved or very much enjoyed this.  It is billed both as a ‘disturbing and thrilling psychological drama about taboo, desire, rebellion and fantasy’, and as a ‘darkly beautiful modern classic about rebellion, eroticism and the female body.  One of the most extraordinary books you will ever read.’  A vast claim indeed, and whilst I’ve not quite read anything like The Vegetarian before, I’m not sure I’d put it up there with the pinnacle of extraordinary novels I’ve read over my lifetime thus far.

Let us discuss the plot, then.  The marriage of Yeong-hye and her husband, Mr Cheong, is ‘interrupted’ when she ‘commits a shocking act of submission: she refuses to eat meat’ and becomes a vegetarian, something not widely accepted in South Korean culture.  The novel’s opening section caught my interest; in a way, we are given the dual perspectives of both Mr Cheong, whose narrative is more traditional, and Yeong-hye, who describes horrific dreamscapes, in which she has seen bloodied corpses and the like, in italicised text.  Mr Cheong narrates the action, for want of a better phrase.  He is baffled at his wife’s decision to become a vegetarian, and furious that she refuses to cook meat for him.  Along with Yeong-hye’s parents, he does everything within his power to try and reverse her decision.  The second section of The Vegetarian uses a third person voice, and follows Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, who becomes fixated on the idea of painting flowers onto naked bodies, culminating in an erotic art film of sorts.  The final part is told by her sister, In-hye.

Mr Cheong is incredibly misogynistic.  Not only does he refuse to take his wife seriously at any point, but he actually turns to physically harming her when he does not get his own way.  When she tells him that the meat smell upon his skin repulses her and she cannot copulate with him, he rapes her.

Yeong-hye is a complex character construction.  Throughout, I felt as though she was the most realistic creation within the book; the others paled a little in comparison, particularly as I struggled to believe that rational adults would behave as they sometimes did; for instance, the scene in which Yeong-hye’s father tries to force feed her meat, thinking that it will change her mind.  This particular scene sent shivers down my spine, and I felt such pangs of compassion for our protagonist.

The passage of time has been well executed, and the use of different perspectives do work well as a whole.  My only qualm is that we are never fully given Yeong-hye’s voice; we learn about her through other characters, and know a little of what is in her head due to the nightmares we are given glimpses of.  I believe that The Vegetarian would have been far more psychologically chilling had it partially, or perhaps entirely, been narrated from her point of view.  She spends time in an institution, but her experiences there are barely documented.

At times, The Vegetarian is quite gorily matter-of-fact.  Mr Cheong, for example, describes the following: ‘I’d seen my mother-in-law gut fish, and my wife and her sister were both perfectly competent when it came to hacking a chicken to pieces with a butcher’s cleaver.  I’d always liked my wife’s earthy vitality, the way she would catch cockroaches by smacking them with the palm of her hand.  She really had been the most ordinary woman in the world’.  Hmm.  Her transformation from placid wife to a headstrong woman in control of her own diet is believable, and very well done; there is a definite change to her, and reasons for it.

The Vegetarian is a harrowing read, and not one for the faint of heart.  To me, it did not feel as consistent as Human Acts; there were a few instances within the novel where I was a little bored with proceedings, and felt that details were being repeated unnecessarily.  The novel comes in waves, though; just as I was beginning to find it a little predictable, something would happen which would render the next few pages compelling and difficult to put down.  In places, The Vegetarian is just as chilling as Human Acts, and its storyline is perhaps more memorable, but it just didn’t grip me in the same way.  Overarchingly, however, its message is powerful; never underestimate a woman when she has made up her mind.

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Reading the World: Asia (Part One)

I am absolutely fascinated by Asia (in fact, my boyfriend and I are planning a trip there next year), but I have oddly read very few books set on the continent.  I had not realised quite how lacking my reading around Asia was until I started perusing lists for what to include in my recommendations.  With the exception of Japan and China, I have barely explored at all, in a literary sense.  That said, I have still managed to eke out two posts filled with Asian books, which I would heartily recommend.

1. Human Acts by Han Kang (South Korea; review here9781846275968
‘Gwangju, South Korea, 1980. In the wake of a viciously suppressed student uprising, a boy searches for his friend’s corpse, a consciousness searches for its abandoned body, and a brutalised country searches for a voice. In a sequence of interconnected chapters the victims and the bereaved encounter censorship, denial, forgiveness and the echoing agony of the original trauma. Human Acts is a universal book, utterly modern and profoundly timeless.’

2. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden (Japan)
‘This is a seductive and evocative epic on an intimate scale, which tells the extraordinary story of a geisha girl. Summoning up more than twenty years of Japan’s most dramatic history, it uncovers a hidden world of eroticism and enchantment, exploitation and degredation. From a small fishing village in 1929, the tale moves to the glamorous and decadent heart of Kyoto in the 1930s, where a young peasant girl is sold as servant and apprentice to a renowned geisha house. She tells her story many years later from the Waldorf Astoria in New York; it exquisitely evokes another culture, a different time and the details of an extraordinary way of life. It conjures up the perfection and the ugliness of life behind rice-paper screens, where young girls learn the arts of the geisha – dancing and singing, how to wind the kimonok, how to walk and pour tea, and how to beguile the most powerful men.’

97800994484713. Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami (Japan; review here)
‘Twenty-two-year-old Sumire is in love with a woman seventeen years her senior. But whereas Miu is glamorous and successful, Sumire is an aspiring writer who dresses in an oversized second-hand coat and heavy boots like a character in a Kerouac novel. Surprised that she might, after all, be a lesbian, Sumire spends hours on the phone talking to her best friend K about the big questions in life: what is sexual desire and should she ever tell Miu how she feels for her. rustrated in his own love for Sumire, K consoles himself by having an affair with the mother of one of his pupils. Then a desperate Miu calls from a small Greek island and asks for his help, and he discovers something very strange has happened to Sumire.’

4. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (India)
‘This is the story of Rahel and Estha, twins growing up among the banana vats and peppercorns of their blind grandmother’s factory, and amid scenes of political turbulence in Kerala. Armed only with the innocence of youth, they fashion a childhood in the shade of the wreck that is their family: their lonely, lovely mother, their beloved Uncle Chacko (pickle baron, radical Marxist, bottom-pincher) and their sworn enemy, Baby Kochamma (ex-nun, incumbent grand-aunt). Arundhati Roy’s Booker Prize-winning novel was the literary sensation of the 1990s: a story anchored to anguish but fuelled by wit and magic.’

5. The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad (Afghanistan) 9781844080472
‘Two weeks after September 11th, award-winning journalist Asne Seierstad went to Afghanistan to report on the conflict there. In the following spring she returned to live with an Afghan family for several months. For more than twenty years Sultan Khan defied the authorities – be they communist or Taliban – to supply books to the people of Kabul. He was arrested, interrogated and imprisoned by the communists and watched illiterate Taliban soldiers burn piles of his books in the street. He even resorted to hiding most of his stock in attics all over Kabul. But while Khan is passionate in his love of books and hatred of censorship, he is also a committed Muslim with strict views on family life. As an outsider, Seierstad is able to move between the private world of the women – including Khan’s two wives – and the more public lives of the men. And so we learn of proposals and marriages, suppression and abuse of power, crime and punishment. The result is a gripping and moving portrait of a family, and a clear-eyed assessment of a country struggling to free itself from history.’

6. Falling Leaves: The Story of an Unwanted Chinese Daughter by Adeline Yen Mah (China)
‘This is the story of an unwanted Chinese daughter, growing up during the Communist Revolution, blamed for her mother’s death, ignored by her millionaire father and unwanted by her Eurasian step mother. A story of greed, hatred and jealousy; a domestic drama is played against the extraordinary political events in China and Hong Kong. Written with the emotional force of a novel but with a vividness drawn from a personal and political background, “Falling Leaves” has been an enduring bestseller all over the world.’

97801410272897. The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai (India)
‘High in the Himalayas sits a dilapidated mansion, home to three people, each dreaming of another time. The judge, broken by a world too messy for justice, is haunted by his past. His orphan granddaughter has fallen in love with her handsome tutor, despite their different backgrounds and ideals. The cook’s heart is with his son, who is working in a New York restaurant, mingling with an underclass from all over the globe as he seeks somewhere to call home. Around the house swirl the forces of revolution and change. Civil unrest is making itself felt, stirring up inner conflicts as powerful as those dividing the community, pitting the past against the present, nationalism against love, a small place against the troubles of a big world.’

8. Asleep by Banana Yoshimoto (Japan)
‘In these three novellas, Yoshimoto spins the stories of three young women bewitched into a spiritual sleep. Sly and mystical as a ghost story, with a touch of Kafkaesque surrealism.’

9. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See (China) 9780747582922
‘Lily is the daughter of a humble farmer, and to her family she is just another expensive mouth to feed. Then, the local matchmaker delivers startling news: if Lily’s feet are bound properly, they will be flawless. In nineteenth-century China, where a woman’s eligibility is judged by the shape and size of her feet, this is extraordinary good luck. Lily, now, has the power to make a good marriage and change the fortunes of her family. To prepare for her new life, she must undergo the agonies of footbinding, learn nu shu, the famed secret women’s writing, and make a very special friend, Snow Flower. But, a bitter reversal of fortune is about to change everything.’

10. NP by Banana Yoshimoto (Japan)
‘In “N.P.,” a celebrated Japanese writer has committed suicide, leaving behind a collection of stories written in English, entitled “N.P.” But the book may never be published in his native Japan: each translator who takes up the ninety-eighth story chooses death too including Kazami’s boyfriend, Shoji. Haunted by Shoji s death, Kazami discovers the truth behind the ninety-eighth storyand comes to believe that everything that had happened was shockingly beautiful, enough to make you crazy.’

 

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