Last January I imposed vegetarianism on my family. Just for the month. We all survived. It was pretty good actually; the challenge of rethinking our entire menu choices appealed to my need to do something different to herald the new year. We are doing it again in 2018. The kids aren’t happy but took great delight in the realisation they can eat meaty things at the school canteen, which is beyond my jurisdiction.
Our commitment to going veggie is nothing to the “completely unremarkable” Yeong-hye’s in Hang Kang’s award winning novel, The Vegetarian. Being vegetarian is not well received in Korea. In fact, it’s viewed with suspicion. A violent and disturbing dream is the catalyst to Yeong-hye’s dietary decsion. The following day she throws away all the meat in the house and refuses to eat anything but vegetables. Her family is unsupportive and none of them understand her choice. The isolation spirals Yeong-hye’s mental and physical well-being to beyond even medical help.
Yeong-hye’s story is told from three points of view over a number of years. The first is her husband’s testament. He describes how her decision is met by other family members and society in general. The second narrator is Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, an unsuccessful artist who becomes obsessed with her body and it being the key to his much desired commercial success and artistic acceptance. The last part is told by her sister who guides us through the familial fall-out and feuds that result from Yeong-hye’s decision to turn veggie.
All three sections describe a conservative society not designed to deal with choices outside the mainstream. It is a society obsessed with how others view you and one constantly concerned with reputation when someone dares to break with tradition. Yeong-hye is a frustrating character. She is passionate about her decision yet entirely dispassionate at every point, almost blank and expressionless – we never get her view though and so the 3 narrators describe her with the same lack of passion they are expected to display themselves in a community so obsessed with the “right” image.
This is a visceral and violent novel (there is a force-feeding scene that made me feel physically sick), which goes against the grain of everything I associate with being vegetarian. Yet it works in this context. The only means of breaking out of the social constraints placed on Yeong-hye, is for her to abuse her body and maintain control of her mental and physical self. The unpleasant scenes are necessary.
The Vegetarian won the Man Booker International prize in 2016 for a reason; because it is unique and extraordinary.
In an effort to write up some of the scribbles I’ve penned in my notebook this year, I’m shamelessly stealing an idea I saw at The Tate bookshop in November. More of these to come.
P.S. I know my handwriting is appalling – sorry.
This time last year, I suggested we talk about love. Shall we do it again? I think we should.
This year has seen even less writing here than last year. Despite the lack of new “content” I got lots of visitors (that story’s for another time). Although I’ve not been active here, I’ve been writing bits elsewhere and short pieces for work. My year’s been hectic beyond belief with nothing more than everyday life and surviving it, which has inevitably impacted my reading choices. In the main, I’ve chosen slim volumes this year; brevity has been everything.
Writers have to work hard with short fiction (I’m not suggesting that writers of longer fiction don’t work hard btw). I continue to marvel at how writers use style and language to convey a story in a short volume. What they leave out tends to be almost as important as the words they include. Their omissions make the reader toil for their literary enjoyment. This is a good thing for a reader like me – I like to be challenged. I like filling in the gaps.
What I’m trying to say is that I’ve fallen in love with shorter fiction. I got so much enjoyment from all the slim volumes I’ve read this year – I’ve loved being immediately plunged into a plot, getting swiftly to the nub of the tale and being propelled to a conclusion. My head can’t seem to cope any more with layered plots and lengthy, multi-character tomes. I’ve felt a massive sense of achievement when putting books back on the shelf in quick succession. Also, from a practical perspective, small books are much easier to commute with!
Much of what I’ve read this year has been about love – check the 3 books I wrote about earlier in the year as good examples. Other stand out titles include Ask The Dust by John Fante, Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift, In Love by Alfred Hayes, The Vegetarian by Han Kang, Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner and The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler. I could go on, but I’m already breaking all the rules of brevity in writing….
All these books deal with love in its myriad forms; passionate, obsessive, platonic, married, secretive, contented, fractious. You get the idea. Tin Man by Sarah Winman is a beautiful example of a love story about longing and grief. It affected me emotionally (not with Essex Serpent-ine tears, admittedly). I got a tight, heavy feeling in my chest that means I’ve read something moving. I felt enormous compassion and empathy for the main characters. The warmth I feel for it has encouraged me out of my hiatus.
Tin Man is a story of 3 people whose lives are linked through shared experience, compassion, friendship and love for each other. The story of their lives is revealed through Ellis and Michael’s recollections and memories, with Annie featuring as the glue that binds them and the reason for their estrangement despite being firm childhood friends. It’s tinged with regret and sadness overshadowed by a tragedy only hinted at until near the end and which prompts the memories. With her subtle and muted prose, Winman manages to evoke a feeling of loss and yearning for the relationship, creative and career decisions that might have been. How would their lives be, had they chosen differently? A feeling I suspect most of us can relate to.
The bond and connection between Michael and Ellis is emotionally strong. There is a touching moment when Michael worries about how he will be received by his old friend after a long period away with no contact. He turns up unannounced and is greeted as though he’s never been away – it made my heart sing.
For me, this book and that passage in particular perfectly articulates what love and friendship is about. When two people experience intimate emotional moments and connection they remain unbroken by time and space. The moments and connection eternally bind them, no matter how many days or years go by or how much geography separates them, the moments, even if fleeting, still exist in their memories as though they were recent encounters. (I’m getting a lump in my throat just writing those words, and I’ve not even had a festive sherry yet!).
Winman navigates us through the decades, deftly providing a glimpse of working life disappointments, trips of discovery to the South of France, life with Aids in the 1980s/90s and carefree summer days by the river. Over a few pages we become intimately involved with these characters until we understand them fully. I love writing that does this. I know I’ve told you very little about what TinMan is about; It’s about love – you don’t really need to know much more and in hindsight maybe that’s all I should have written.
In the spirit of this theme of love and friendship, I’m going to add the same line I closed last year’s post with, and it’s as fitting this year as it was then.
Care for others even when they don’t care for you. All. The. Time.
I’ve just spent a tense couple of days with this book. Tension is definitely the overriding emotion I take from this compact family saga. I’m not very good with any sort of familial stress – I don’t cope too well with it, so the tensions between the three sisters in this story and the strain between each of them and their father as well as the mounting political hostility in revolutionary Bolivia, put me on edge.
Hasbún’s fictional account of the Ertl family’s experiences in La Paz, Bolivia isn’t a rip-roaring adventure tale, although they are not a straightforward family by any means, instead he tells their less than ordinary story with an understated air of something falling apart until it’s beyond repair. German Hans Ertl was a explorer and legendary cameraman, famed for filming Nazi propaganda with Leni Riefenstahl. He fled Germany after the war. This book starts shortly after his wife and daughters join him in South America in the early 1950s. Hasbún chronicles their individual stories and a basic history of revolution in Bolivia through a series of commentaries and accounts told by various characters in and around the family. As the book progresses it is clear that eldest daughter Monika’s radicalisation and involvement in the Marxist guerrilla movement still just about intact and operating in difficult conditions post Che Guevara’s capture, torture and murder, is central to the story and ultimately the fate of the family. Monika’s experiences when accompanying her father on a filming expedition in the jungle and her failed marriage into an old German mining family, part of the rising Bolivian expat elite, drive her underground and earns her the title of “Che Guevara’s avenger.”
This is fiction short on factual explanations of the Ertl family’s back story. There is also no information relating to South American politics or the reasons for the rise in post-war Marxist revolutions and guerrilla skirmishes in countries like Bolivia. Hasbún does not expand on Cuban and Russian involvement in funding and training radicals, nor does he elaborate on the CIA bankrolling hit squads and far reaching spy networks to stamp out any sign of communism in South America. I had to do my own background reading to fill in some gaps. If you like your fiction complete with every factual detail ticked off, you may find this book frustrating. It’s not Hasbún’s intention to give us a history lesson. What his narrative suggests and the structure of this novel alludes to is a family never quite unified and now in free-fall. The eventual geographic dislocation of the Ertl family members and the gaping differences in their values mirrors the national political turmoil and divisions amongst Bolivia’s people.
This is a book about being an outsider; an outsider in your birth country, an outsider in your adopted country and an outsider in your own family. What Hasbún does so brilliantly is expose how the family members are never quite accepted in their chosen employment or choice of home and cause. On page 13 alone there are two sentences demonstrating two types of isolation:
“La Paz wasn’t so bad, but it was chaotic and we would never stop being outsiders, people from another world: an old, cold world.”
“With her recurring panic attacks she had somehow managed to wangle it so that everything revolved around her even more than before, and Trixi and I had to resign ourselves to being minor characters, a bit like Mama in relation to Papa.”
Hasbún deftly highlights the extremes of values and morals in one family unit by drawing the readers attention to Monika’s actions as antithesis to her father’s notoriety as they act in polar opposite political systems. There are also flashes of violence and gore, nothing too extreme and often mentioned in passing, just to remind us how tough, dangerous and perilous it is to fight for your cause. And we don’t only witness conflict on a macro level, Hasbrún also shows us internal strife. Monika is only one of several conflicted characters; showing utter disdain for her father and what he stands for while idolising him and desperate for his approval. In such a short narrative he’s invaded our consciousness with all of this information. Clever.
If you are interested in stories about how our actions affect the lives of others and how those actions can ripple through time or stories about how family members can have opposing values despite having the same experiences or fiction based on fact where not every detail is set out for you so you can investigate further at your leisure, then I absolutely recommend this book to you. It’s an elegantly put together family chronicle and beautifully translated. I found it fascinating and a pleasure to read, despite the family tensions putting me on edge.
Stu is currently doing a Pushkin Press fortnight – check out his blog for loads of great translated fiction
I’ve never been to Caerphilly, but maybe I should make the effort. Thomas Morris’ collection of small town stories set in this South Wales town is never going to be a tourist board advertisement, but Caerphilly’s charms shine through as the constant in each of the tales in his debut; its castle and moat, the park with swans and interloper sea birds, its position in a bowl landscape and surrounding hills, the mining museum up the valley and the Tesco, which if not of interest to visitors is definitely a landmark to the residents and makes a regular appearance. It’s Morris’ focus on banalities and the ordinariness of his characters’ worries and concerns that gives this series of ten venn diagram style stories, where characters pop up again in tales that are not solely theirs, such an authentic feel.
Small town life is like that; every day goings-on peppered with the weird and surreal. Some of the weird and surreal becomes town gossip for a few days, sometimes it’s just the fears and doubts of the characters themselves as they muse their humdrum existence and ask themselves that universal question; “is this really it?” But We Don’t Know What We Are Doing isn’t a depressing account of the state of life in towns like Caerphilly. It is a celebration of the town where Morris was raised, of small moments of joy (the father accompanying his stag son to Dublin and texting his wife reassurance as he tucks up his inebriated child; the mother who manages to engage with a girl who rarely speaks, the two-time widower who is excited to walk out with a possible new love interest), of characters we recognise from our own lives, of issues most of us face day to day. Yes, there is strangeness in some of the stories, but life is strange (so too the afterlife featured in the last instalment where characters continue their 2nd life – still in Caerphilly).
This book was a delight. I devoured it in a couple of sittings. It made me laugh, it made me wince, I felt sadness and sympathy. You can’t ask more than that from good fiction, each story a mini piece of pleasure to relish.
Morris is one of a number of writers making waves in short fiction. This collection won Wales Book of the Year 2016. Other collections to check out are Angela Readman’s Don’t Try This At Home and Colin Barrett’s Young Skins.
Sometimes I read a book that makes me feel uncomfortable in my cosy, middle class, average world. It’s easy for me to be caught up in the day-to-day of my life and forget or ignore what goes on elsewhere, which is probably the same for many of us. The lives and world described by Jenni Fagan in her debut novel, The Panopticon, is so far removed from anything I know. It is a world often swept under the carpet unless there’s a massive scandal too huge to hide. There can be a smugness (often unconscious, certainly in my case) among people like me (Guardian reading, home counties village dwelling), showing outrage, concern and shock when some social horror comes to light, only to go back to our Costa coffees and instantly forget the other world out there, maybe just down the road but out of sight and well and truly out of mind.
But Jenni Fagan’s book hit a nerve, it made me squirm. It wasn’t only that I imagined the fiction and it made me uncomfortable, it was that my subconscious told me that the fiction was very likely close to the truth of life in care and it bothered me. Having read a bit about Jenni’s own story, I began to wonder whether she had lived through, heard about or witnessed situations similar to those experienced by her characters. If so, I wanted to tell her how sorry I felt about that and offer (unqualified) support. I questioned my motives for wanting to have this conversation and, once I was honest with myself, realised it was to make me feel better. I would undoubtedly end the conversation, wiping my middle-class brow, safe in the knowledge I was unlikely to be personally affected by such issues. At this point I remembered a particularly telling line in The Panoptican, and I felt ashamed of myself.
The I can save you brigade are particularly radioactive. They think if you just inhale some of their middle-classism, then you’ll be saved
How ridiculous and frankly absurd of me to think that someone like me can “save” someone like the main character in this book.
Anais narrates her own story. She is only 15, but has lived through more than most people twice her age. She’s lived in too many care and foster homes to bother continue counting, she’s also been adopted once, but things ended tragically. She has no idea who her birth parents are. She knows no one she is related to. She has no history or family point of reference and so often thinks she may be the product of some dreadful ongoing experiment monitored by faceless men in broad-brimmed hats. This is the paranoia Anais lives with. She is taken to the Panopticon, a sort of last chance detention saloon for kids like her, after an incident involving a police officer. She is covered in blood yet unable to explain why. She is hard as nails, picking fights to claim her place in the pecking order of other forgotten kids, breaking the rules but trying to survive.
The Panopticon is a circular building allowing a view into every room/cell from an upper control floor. Anais feels constantly observed; there is no privacy. Her tragic back story slowly unfolds as her case is investigated and she contemplates her next move. The panopticon’s lack of privacy becomes a metaphor for Anais’ life under observation. She is monitored and reported on by various government departments and decisions are made on her behalf. She is watched, but no one really sees her.
Fagan manages to pull off that difficult feat of making her character tough yet vulnerable, ugly yet admirable. You want her to survive, but you wince at some of the stuff she does. And despite the unreliability of Anais’ narration, somehow you know that the brutality and neglect she witnesses and experiences at the hands of various parts of society are probably close to the truth – “society” is also unreliable and fails kids like Anais.
This is a tough book to stomach, but utterly readable. It made me think a lot about my own life and for that I am grateful. An astounding debut. Jenni Fagan was named as one of Granta’s best of young British novelists in 2013 and Scottish Author of the Year this year. Her 2nd novel, The Sunlight Pilgrims is out now. One to watch.