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
Nell Zink’s writing is a bit left field, her storytelling quirky. Reading this book was a bit like seeing something in my peripheral vision and not quite being able to make out what it was. If you like oddness in fiction, then maybe you’ll like this. As I read it, I wasn’t convinced I was enjoying it much, only after, once I’d put it down and moved on to something else did I realise I appreciate it exactly because it’s not straightforward.
Administrator Tiff and scientist/twitcher/dubstep DJ Stephen have known each other all of 3 weeks when they decide to get married. They are selfish characters and their self absorption doesn’t change just because they are now a couple. The only momentary period of unity coincides with the pair nursing the titular Wallcreeper back to health having struck it while out driving, causing them to crash and putting Tiff in hospital for a couple of days.
This book is Tiff’s account of their chaotic romp through Europe moving from Eco cause to Green scheme in an effort to find personal meaning and yet it’s all done at such a superficial level you can’t help but think of them as slightly pathetic environmental activists. Tiff makes no apology for her half-hearted efforts to do something meaningful with her life. She admits wanting to avoid paid work for as long as she can get away with and is happy sponging off Stephen. They both have numerous affairs and make no attempts to hide them from each other, it’s all very disrespectful. They lurch from venture to venture with no real plan, spiralling further out of control as though being together compounds their ability and need to self destruct.
I couldn’t work out whether Tiff was a lazy, wet blanket of a woman or whether, a bit like Chris in I Love Dick, she was an ardent feminist by just getting on with what she pleased, because she could. The Wallcreeper is less intellectually challenging than I Love Dick, yet I was constantly reminded of Dick as I read it; the two books are very similar in tone, capturing female insecurity and determination in a comparable first person voice. This book is strongest though when Tiff and Stephen debate their existence. These are often witty, dry observations and well crafted sentences or paragraphs giving us a glimpse of Zink’s clear ability with words. My gripe is that these are few and far between and over too soon. I didn’t love this book, I didn’t dislike it either. I think the problem is that I’m not entirely convinced I knew what was going on. On the whole I’m fine with having questions when I finish a book, I’m just not that comfortable with feeling like I’ve missed the point but I defend Zink’s right to craft a narrative that leaves me wondering what the hell it was all about.
Do you ever feel you’re not a fully paid up member of the Grown-ups Club? I know I do despite being almost half way through my 40s; I regularly behave immaturely, have toddler type meltdowns or completely forget I’m no longer an invincible 24 year old. Tsukiko, the narrator of Hiromi Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo feels the same. She seems to have regressed over time.
His behaviour was commensurate with his age….I, on the other hand, still might not be considered a proper adult….as the years passed, I turned into quite a childlike person.
Tsukiko is unsure about many things; how she came to be 37, alone, uncomfortable in her life and around others. She is a loner and lonely. One thing she becomes certain of is the importance of her friendship with Sensei. Mr Matsumoto is Tsukiko’s old Japanese teacher from school, widowed and in his 60s, to her he is only ever Sensei – teacher. They meet by chance in a bar and strike up conversation. They continue to meet at the bar, but never by design. Kawakami describes the development of their relationship through a series of short chapters outlining unspectacular excursions to markets, art galleries and amusement arcades until it is clear that this is no longer just a friendship, but love. Tsukiko declares herself early on and then immediately worries about it.
I had screwed up. Grown-ups didn’t go around blurting out troublesome things to people. You couldn’t just blithely disclose something that would then make it impossible to greet them with a smile the next day….It was somehow absurd. Me declaring my love for Sensei to his face, Sensei taking it almost completely in his stride yet without responding to my declaration – everything seemed as if it was part of a dream.
The age difference between the two is never a huge concern; Kawakami doesn’t allow them to dwell on it instead she reminds the reader through the characters’ very sweet exchanges. Sensei regularly teases Tsukiko and chastises her for unladylike behaviour and continued poor aptitude for identifying and reciting poetry. He is reserved and she blurts things out without thinking. He imparts his mature wisdom, making her feel even more childish and wonder at her behaviour. She thinks he’s old-fashioned and deliberately behaves in a way she knows will irritate him. Only near the end of the book does age become a concern for them both and they wonder how best to navigate around the issues they foresee – death and sex.
This book contains no sex (sorry for that spoiler), despite Sensei making it very clear to Tsukiko that physical intimacy is essential no matter how old you are, it’s extremely important but food plays a huge part in their story and I understood it as a literary substitute for sex. Kawakami describes in great detail various dishes the two eat at the bar and elsewhere, different ways the dishes can be prepared and how best to source the best ingredients. The pair also drink an inordinate amount of sake. Eating and drinking become the rituals that cement their relationship.
There is a dreaminess to Tsukiko’s narration and I was sometimes unsure whether she was sure of her reality. Some of her dialogue is in quotation marks, some not – this made me wonder whether she was having some conversations in her head rather than speaking out loud. She often talks to Sensei over distances, calls to him in the night, imagines a life with him. She wonders at the stars and moon, she enjoys living in her own head which reinforces her childlike qualities.
I haven’t read a lot of Japanese literature, but what I have read, I’ve throughly enjoyed. Strange Weather in Tokyo will now be added to my growing list of “Japanese books to haunt and admire.” There’s something quite comforting and satisfyingly challenging about the understated style, the magical realism and dreamlike quality of the writing from this region that pull me in. The exoticism of a culture I’ve never experienced also intrigues me. This short and gentle book about love that is destined to find its path was a beautiful place to start my reading year.
Shall we talk about love? I think we should. First, I’ve not shown my blog a lot of love this year and it deserves a bit of attention (don’t we all?!). Second, I’ve heard enough vitriol, heated words, outright hatred, disproportionate and nasty outrage this year to last me a life time, so, as the year draws to a close I want to reflect on a book I read in August that had a profound affect on me and made me think about the nature of love and friendship on a level I’d not pondered before. I’ve regularly thought about this book since then; it’s been a perfect foil to all the grimness of 2016.
There are few books capable of initiating spontaneous chest-heave sobbing and huge fat tears from me, but Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent did. Without warning, it just started, 2/3rds of the way through my first reading. It was five minutes of that really uncontrollable type of crying; when it was over I felt lighter and a huge sense of relief. The weird thing is, this is not a sad book. In fact, the opposite. My reaction was unexpected and has allowed me to cement ideas about things that are important to me.
Told over 12 months, The Essex Serpent is a story set at the very end of the Victorian era. It tells of recently widowed Cora Seaborne, who is seeking change and adventure. She moves with her son, Francis and companion, Martha, to the remote Essex village of Aldwinter, bordered by the estuary marshes. Here she meets the Reverand William Ransome, a man desperate to dissuade his parishioners from their superstitions about the local legend of a huge serpent supposed to haunt the local waterways and blamed for disappearances and strange goings on. The parishioners’ superstitions have been whipped to almost hysterical proportions and Will Ransome is determined to use reason to explain away the sightings of this horrific creature and calm his flock, restore order and peace to this sleepy corner.
The search for the serpent is the frame on which Sarah Perry deftly hangs the rest of the plot in her novel of ideas and deep themes. The characters go about their eventful year and through their interlocking relationships she introduces and discusses concepts relating to religion and science, politics and society all wrapped in a story delicately balanced on the love and friendships between a beautifully described cast of characters, believable in their actions and motivations because they are not so different from us. It is not overly sentimental, yet emotionally evocative.
William and Cora are a pair who, on paper, shouldn’t be well suited. They have a few things in common and there is a lot they differ on. They debate and argue, they disagree and make up, they sulk and relent, she teases him and he scolds her. Yet undeniable to them both is the fact that the connection and admiration is instant and heartfelt, intellectual at first and developing into physical attraction. To Will, this connection is a mystery and he fights it. He is married to his childhood sweetheart. He never contemplated he could possibly have room for anyone else in his heart but his Stella. A lot of thinking and walking brings him to the realisation that he can and he does. He loves Cora and he bravely, beautifully, lyrically declares it to her because he knows she loves him too. Honesty is the best option. As I’m not an award-winning writer, I cannot do justice to the way Perry (who is an award-winning writer) reveals this burgeoning relationship to us. I make it sound like sentimental mush, it’s not. It’s exactly as I imagine something like this happening; with a lot of angst, a whole heap of confusion and anxiety. When Cora runs back to London and avoids Will by not responding to his letters she has these bewildered thoughts:
Will’s letters are prized, read often, unanswered. How can she respond? She buys a postcard…and writes I WISH YOU WERE HERE, but what good did it ever do to speak one’s mind? In his absence – the world grows dull and blunted; there’s no longer anything in it to delight or surprise. Then she’s struck by her own folly – to feel so dreary because she can’t speak to some Essex parson with whom she has nothing in common! – it’s absurb; her pride revolts against it. In the end, it comes more or less down to this; she does not write, because she wants to.
As a reader, this behaviour makes no sense – they love each other, why don’t they just sort it out? – because Perry’s version is closer to real life, that’s why…human frailties, vulnerabilities and insecurities stop us from pursuing the very thing we want the most, driving us to upset and offend albeit perhaps not deliberately. Will is disquieted at Cora’s silence – it confuses him.
Will and Cora’s intellectual and passionate love is not the only form of friendship Perry explores in The Essex Serpent. We get familial love, platonic love, unrequited love and childhood friendship. Cora’s friend Luke, a surgeon working at the cutting edge of medicine, is horrified to witness her blossoming friendship with Will. He takes comfort in his work, but when Cora rejects him and disaster strikes at work, he feels there is nothing left to live for – though there is friendship. Will’s daughter never forgets her missing friend from school – the elation they feel at finding each other again made me glow inside. Cora’s companion, Martha, is a striking and astounding character; obsessed with improving housing for the poor, she campaigns like her life depends on it, she befriends a man in need and they agree to live as man and wife but free of the shackles the ceremony bestows. She is politically aware and has marxist leanings – she is a kick-ass awesome, no-nonsense, emancipated, bright woman who knows her own mind and won’t be dictated to.
This book is about grand ideas and the themes of love and friendship, but it is ultimately a book about acceptance. Acceptance of reason over superstition, rational thought over doctrine and vice versa, medical intervention over waiting for fate to take its course. Acceptance of your station in life or not. Acceptance of change. Acceptance of intellect over beauty, accepting when your heart overrules your head.
So, why the tears? Ok, well. The truth is, Sarah Perry made me think about the sort of friend I am. I was found to be scoring mostly Cs in the “Are you a good friend?” multiple-choice Graziaesque self-inflicted questionnaire i.e. could do better. For me, showing someone you care about them is more about little things than grand gestures; remembering a conversation from months back and referring to it, messaging them just so they know you are thinking of them, listening when they are being needy without offering advice, being honest when needed and reliable when necessary; I realised, I probably wasn’t doing very well at any of this. Time to improve. I’ve got some amazing friends. As my life gets busier, I have seen less of some people whose company I really enjoy. Some are more dependable than others, some I’ve wondered whether they are truly committed to me as a friend and sometimes it can be easier not to make the effort. Since that day in August, I’ve made more of an effort to be the friend I want to be. Then, yesterday, I read a blog post about being positive and a line stood out:
Care for others even when they don’t care for you. All. The. Time.
And having spent months thinking and worrying about what I could possibly write that could describe how I feel about The Essex Serpent, it finally all fell into place.
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.
A few years ago when my children were much younger and we were too skint and tired to go out much, we started catching up with classic movies and foreign language films we’d never, but should have, seen. Our LoveFilm subscription was well used during these years. Flicking through the “films you must see” lists identified a Hitchcock sized gap in our knowledge of his back catalogue which we worked hard to plug. Vertigo is a particularly disturbing one and based almost frame by frame on the chapters in this book (although the ending is different) by French crime writing duo Pierre Boileau & Thomas Narcejac.
This is less a classic crime thriller and more a claustrophobic, psychological melodrama dripping in behaviour so obsessive it drives the main character, Flavieres, to the brink of madness. His innocuous task, carried out as a favour to an old friend, to follow and observe the friend’s wife who is behaving oddly and thought to be suicidal, swiftly spirals into stalkerish obsession with this ethereal creature. Even his eventual friendship with this woman does little to tone down his increasingly bizarre means to remain close to her. Several years later he impossibly catches a glimpse of her once more, setting him on his previous destructive path.
The stifling atmosphere of this book is made even more stark by the references to German invading forces moving ever closer to Paris and the later depressing descriptions of the post-war state of that beautiful city. As Flavieres’ behaviour becomes more desperate, he begins to unravel, he’s unhinged, so the pace picks up hurtling the reader forward to witness the tragic end you know must be coming; I read the last pages through the gaps between my fingers, like I watched the end of the film, not really wanting to read/watch but having a gory fascination with needing to know how it all ends.
As a character Flavieres is rather pathetic, but I had enormous sympathy for him. He is used so abominably and thrown to one side by someone he thinks of as a friend. Over the course of the book his personality changes immensely because of this woman who he believes will alter the course of his life; she does have that effect, but not as he’d imagined. And here’s the cleverness of this twisted psycho-drama; as you read on, you know this sort of thing could happen to any of us. Brilliant.
Pushkin Press have released a series of 20th century European crime fiction named after this book. The Vertigo series jacket artworks are all similar to this one; bold colours and overlaid text very reminiscent of mid-century modern designs. Check them out here.