The Vegetarian by Han Kang

 

Hardcover, 192 pages
Published February 2nd 2016 by Hogarth (first published October 2007)*

Though the ostensible reason for her not wanting Yeong-hye to be discharged, the reason that she gave the doctor, was this worry about a possible relapse, now she was able to admit to herself what had really been going on. She was no longer able to cope with all that her sister reminded her of. She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner. And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there…”

 

Wow, what can I say about this one except “wow.”

The Vegetarian by Han Kang was everything that we love about Korean and Japanese literature and art—and that’s exactly what this work was: art. Here you will find what we have come to know, to love and to expect from authors in this genre who write in this vein: the vibrancy, the subtle magical realism, the commanding usage of words and the elusive, sinister nature that is unique to these works—all embedded within an established culture of history and mores that has survived and developed for millennia longer than most others.

        The Vegetarian read with a delicious ominousness that was as subtle as a shadow, like a breath at your neck. It was that subtly that made the read so taunt and disquieting, and there was a strange, magical realism to it that almost read like Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 (no shock there, as they both seem to have been influenced by Kafka). As a work of short literary form (it’s under 200 pages), it was unusual, among other reasons, in that it was told from three different perspectives with almost no perspective from the novel’s subject, Yeong-hye. We see how her vegetarianism, which later leads into a kind of manic catatonia, affects first her callous and at times sexually abusive husband, then her brother-in-law who becomes completely enthralled with her sexually because of her Mongolian mark, and her sister who is the last one standing when Yeong-hye’s psyche begins to peel away.

In addition to the serious topics that The Vegetarian brushed up against: the effect of cultural mores on women, body image, conformism, familial ties and abuse, and, of course, mental illness that ultimately culminated in a way that I could never reveal without spoiling it for you—this was also a tale of family dysfunction. It was a tale of familial ties that were severed painfully, of violent confrontations and realizations, of physical and emotional starvation, and a parable about the woman, the vegetarian, at the center of it all.

          The Vegetarian was sensual, and it meandered toward its climax in a way that was both unsettling and prophetic. It was allegory elevated to the highest level of art, raised to the level of surrealism. The change in tenses and POVs worked well. And even this technique, this simple process of sentence-writing that we learn in grade school, was elevated: the tenses of sentences shifted noticeably, particularly the closer that it came to dénouement, a jolting but brilliant allusion to this descent into mental illness and personal violence, which added to the mystical element of this novel.

Han Kang produced a work, his first to be seen here in the U.S., that was so unhinged, so mystifying, that at times it would slither from your grasp. I had to sit and reflect on several of the passages for a few minutes—not because they were ill-written, but because they were both profound and often just outside of my immediate mental grasp, and that was a wonderful thing. It was an effect that I look for in modern-day writing—that disquietingly ungraspable moment.

“Yeong-hye’s voice, which came to her while she was suspended in that halfway state between sleep and wakefulness, was low and warm at first, then innocent like that of a young child, but the last part was mangled, a distorted animal sound. Her eyes snapped open in fright, and she was stung by a waking hatred the likes of which she’d never felt before, before being thrown back into sleep. This time she was standing in from of the bathroom mirror. In the reflection, blood was trickling from her left eye. She quickly reached up to wipe the blood away, but somehow her reflection in the mirror didn’t move an inch, only stood there, blood running from a staring eye.”

The Vegetarian was unconventional. It broke away from the molds that we find ourselves encumbered in with typical fiction. Here you will not find the typical “rising action, climax, falling action” formula that we’ve become so accustomed to, that we’ve grown to expect and to lean into, though we know how it’ll all end in the end. Honestly, this read left me a little speechless, so you’ll have to excuse the less-than-customary word count here. Definitely, take that as a compliment in the highest sense. 5 stars. *****

 

*The cover used here is not the cover that was released in the U.S., but it is one of the most BEAUTIFUL examples of cover art that I have ever seen, AND it more accurately portrays some of the themes in this novel (much better than the U.S.-released cover art).

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Random House, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Hardcover, 400 pages
Expected publication: August 23rd 2016 by Random House (first published March 15th 2016)

“You think I don’t want to remain in America, too? You think I came to America so that I can leave? I work as a servant to people, driving them all over, the whole day, sometimes the whole week, answering yes sir, yes madam, bowing down even to a little child. For what, Neni? What pride are you talking about? I lower myself more than many men would ever lower themselves. What do you think I do it for? For you, for me. Because I want us to say in America! But if America says they don’t want us in their country, you think I’m going to keep on begging them for the rest of my life?…Never. Not for one day…”

 

Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers had its highs and lows. I’d like to first say that I love that Mbue is a native of Limbe, Cameroon. Rather than telling a story from hearsay and secondhand experiences, she was able to paint a realistic portrait of a modern-day Cameroonian family. The inflection in their tone and dialogue, their traditions, they all came through brilliantly here. Yet this, unfortunately, wasn’t enough for me to give this one high praise.

          Behold the Dreamers was a wonderful title for a work that told a story of exactly that: a family with dreams in their eyes and a determination to fight for a good life in America the Great. The writing was simple; particularly for the first large chunk, 40% or so. It was as simple as a burlap sack, and it was a bit too rudimentary to really pull me in. It definitely didn’t strike me as literary fiction, which some have labeled it as. On the other hand, I will say that it was culturally enlightening to read about the traditions of the Cameroonians, to recognize the cadence in their voices as different from those of their American counterparts. That dialogue between the immigrants read more jauntily, more authentically, than any of the other dialogue in this novel, the only thing that seemed dazzlingly authentic, and that was a let-down for me.

There were assuming plot leaps that lurched the timeline forward in a way that made me feel I’d missed something, where I, as a reader, missed the growth of the characters and how their bonds with one another transpired or were sullied, and that made the read less enthralling. It made me invest less in it. This wasn’t like plot twists that kept you guessing—this isn’t some mystery or thriller—but major life decisions that the reader had no warning were even possible, even a thought process in the characters’ minds, that just tumbled into the plot. That, to me, was a sure sign of the author’s inability to weave a plot with finesse. It felt like I was on a bumpy car trip, feeling every pothole and speed bump. Definitely not a luxury car ride.

And then there was the fact that it took way too long for any meaningful action to transpire. By the time I looked at my counter to see that I was over 40% of the way through this novel, I was shocked at how little I was invested in the characters, at how much valuable space had gone to waste in telling the story thus far. There was a high point, for me, where the action picked up and it looked like character evolution would take place—like Neni would fight the traditions of her upbringing and stand on her own, like she would fight her hardest for her dreams, which is what she came to America to do. But then I landed with a heavy flop at that ending and literally said to myself, “Oh, I’d better not turn this page for this to be it!” (literally, imagine me sitting at my computer, finger poised over the right arrow saying, “Oh, this had better not be it!”) only to find that when I did turn the page, that was it. Without spoiling the plot for anyone, **MINOR SPOILER ALERT** this one ended with the characters not having fully transformed. A bow-tie ending it was not, but it was still a deeply unsatisfying way to go out, my goodness.

Still, there were a few places where the writing dazzled. Where it popped and sizzled and hit the right notes like here:

            “For the first time in a long love affair, she was afraid he would beat her. She was almost certain he would beat her. And if he had, she would have known that it was not her Jende who was beating her but a grotesque being created by the sufferings of an American immigrant life.”

            But if there’s one thing that I hate in a read—that many hate, I’d assume—it’s characters who succumb. I love a realistic read that shows us that life is not always bright, life isn’t just one happy Facebook post after another—but I also want to be able to root for characters even in their short-fallings, and I found that I couldn’t always do that here. So, in the end, the Dreamers only managed to squeak out three stars ***

           

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso

Hardcover, 288 pages
Published May 5th 2016 by Chatto & Windus
It is set for a US release in February 2017

I received a copy of The Woman Next Door from its publishers, Chatto and Windus, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Hortensia James and Marion Agostino have been rivals for decades, though they’ve lived on the other side of a hedge from each other for all those years. In post-apartheid South Africa, one is black and one is white; what they have in common is their spunkiness in old age, that they’ve both been recently widowed and that they both feel a certain superiority from the successful careers they once had. They’ve become comfortable sniping at each from across the way, antagonizing each other over racial differences and otherwise at neighborhood meetings, but when unexpected life circumstances hit them both, will they be willing to set their differences aside and find friendship within each other?

I was really looking forward to reading this novel by Omotoso and had it on my to-read list before I knew that I could get in on NetGally. However, The Woman Next Door was a bit of a disappointment for me. For me, the conflict never came across as organic or authentic. The build-up of their long-time feud seemed rushed, superficial and underdeveloped. With this being the very foundation for the way that the novel unfolded, the novel never came together for me. It never grabbed me or moved me in any way. In fact, I found it difficult to even finish. The characters seemed to only be developed based on stories told to each other in dialogue and narrative passages that never delved deep enough into their background for me to feel that I knew them or to sympathize or identify with them. I found the writing to be threadbare, just enough to tell the story, but not enough to feel complete, certainly not enough to hold my attention as a reader.

With that in mind, I’m giving this novel 2 stars because there were elements of the plot that worked well and could have really made this novel a delight, but I can’t give Omotoso more than that because I honestly felt it wasn’t well executed at all. 2 stars **

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Hardcover, 304 pages
Published June 26th 2014 by Penguin Press

“How suffocating it is to be loved that much.” 

Everything I Never Told You centers around the Lee family: James, the Chinese-American professor who lectures on the epitome of what was never attainable for him—true Americanism, Marilyn, the blond wife who’d always dreamed of being a doctor when female doctors were a rare phenomenon only to turn out just what her mother had hoped and what Marilyn had always wished to avoid, and their three children, Nathan, Lydia and Hannah. James and Marilyn focus all of their attention on Lydia who they are determined to mold into everything that they were never able to achieve themselves, creating a crushing pressure for her that comes from both sides. When she dies unexpectedly, the glue that holds them all together is no longer able to hold. As they try to learn what happened to her—and why—they come to realize that she was not the girl they thought she was. The reader is allowed to learn this before the family does, which creates a beautiful inside glimpse of a family crumbling.

       Everything I Never Told You is about just that: the subtle nuances and emotions that go unsaid, the familial tension behind closed doors that goes unnoticed, unexplored, and the way that our lineage and upbringing shape our lives, for better or for worse. Gripping in its portrayal of dreams deferred and hopes crushed, of coming of age in the 60s and 70s, of the subtle (and not-so-subtle) cruelties of the world and of the ignorance of those who would rather mock than understand, Everything was an exploration of the overwhelming pressure of a family’s love and expectations—both for themselves and for their children. Despite the fact that this one had a few moments of lethargy at the start, it all came together beautifully, and the last half or so of the novel I finished in one sitting. This novel, all told, was a bold and shattering glimpse into reality for all of the characters involved. It was the historical and ancestral short-fallings, misgivings and dreams unrealized that brought this one to a head in the most lovely way. It was chilling in its honest and straight-forward depiction of challenges with fitting in, with being oneself, all wrapped into beautiful little metaphors that were easy to hold…and easy to crush: a Betty Crocker cookbook, a white doctor’s coat, cowboys, a silver locket.

“Different” was the connective tissue here. The characters’ differences from those of the outside world and in the incongruousness of their perception of themselves versus what others saw were so well developed that the feeling of discomfort (both in their lives and in their minds) was palpable within these pages, creating a need to continue turning the pages. Ng portrayed their longing here brilliantly—longing to be someone else, to be free.

“Sometimes you almost forgot: that you didn’t look like everyone else…you saw it in the little boys on the playground, stretching their eyes to slits with their fingers—Chinese—Japanese—look at these—and in the older boys who muttered ching chong ching chong ching as they passed you on the street, just loud enough for you to hear…and tried to forget about it. And you did, until it happened again.”

Ng was not forceful with her hand, but allowed those things unsaid, undone, unnoticed, to tell the story in its way of delicate nuances. The snatching off of a locket here, the touching of ones finger to tongue there. It was those subtleties that the reader had to catch, or they’d miss something integral. Characterized by lovely narrative prose, Ng’s MFA background stood out and was on full display in a way that showed spirit and depth. Mellifluous, introspective and refined, it dug into the very soul of what it means, what it must feel like, to be different. 5 stars. *****

 

 

The Black Album by Hanif Kureishi

The Black Album
Published April 1st 1996 by Faber & Faber (first published January 1st 1995)

“Chili’s basic understanding was that people were weak and lazy. He didn’t think they were stupid; he wasn’t going to make that mistake. He saw, though, that people resisted change, even if it would improve their lives; they were afraid, complacent, lacking courage. This gave the advantage to someone with initiative and will.” 

The Black Album, originally published in ‘95 then republished by Scribner in 1996, is the tale of Shahid, a Pakistani Muslim young man living in a contemporary British society. As he grapples with the line between fundamentalism and liberalism—his love of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll versus his traditional familial and community expectations—he finds himself coming of age and into his own in London after the death of his father, exploring and often crossing the line between the accepted and the taboo, his insight into the world around him growing ever more poignant as he does. Here you find two combatting worlds that do not, by definition, co-exist well: the ideology of the liberal neo thinker who is entranced by Prince, Baldwin and the idea of the Black Panther movement versus the radical fundamentalists, portrayed through Shahid’s friend, Riaz, and his clique. And in the middle is a cast of characters who are fully realized, led by an older brother who has followed drugs down their rabbit hole. The sequence of events and clash of cultures eventually lead to violence, fittingly in a controversy over The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie.

Hanif Kureishi has never been an author to write to placate the masses, and he didn’t attempt so here either. This novel didn’t please everyone—in fact, it might have offended some—but if you’re looking for a single word to describe this pick, I’ve got one for you: soul. Pure soul on a page. Keep in mind that this novel was Kureishi’s response to the fatwah intent on killing Salmon Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses that was issued by Islamic fundamentalists. The grittiness and reality in this work left me breathless, and it was refreshing to find a work that so brilliantly mixed comedy, intellect and satire. I first read this pick while doing my M.A. in London. I remember chatting about it with my diss. advisor, Bobby Nayyar, over some beverage in some mostly-empty coffee nook, then the conversation continuing as we strolled to the tube in typical London drizzly weather. The Black Album was insightful and dared to go inside of the crannies that make us uncomfortable, into the room where drugs are being done, into the bed of the professor sleeping with her student. This novel was loud, as it had to be to compete with all of the background noise of London and to find its place within it, both for the characters internally and for the novel itself. Here you’ll find insightful little nuggets like the one above and you’ll follow Shahid in his modern-day journey, in a journey that both Baby Boomers and Millennials alike can relate to, because this world described within the pages of The Black Album has always existed though it isn’t often written about—that is, not so often as runaway chick lit bestsellers and formulaic thrillers. There was no formula to this one, only the free hand of a confident author not afraid to cross a few lines.

The industry needs more words—more books—from those who truly have something to say, and this one, this writer, does. As an agent, I fought for authors who had a true voice, passion, soul. But often they were turned down as too this or too that, while other writers, some of whom I have and likely will in the future review here, continued being offered contracts to write about…nothing. But reads like this let me know that some truly talented voices do still get through “the gatekeepers,” and for that we should all be both encouraged and grateful. More please. Five stars all day. *****