She selfishly did as she pleased

The VegetarianThe Vegetarian
by Han Kang
translated from Korean by Deborah Smith

As you’ll have noticed, I have been watching a lot of South Korean TV shows this year. It all started with a random Netflix recommendation, and I enjoyed that first taste so much that I immediately asked for more suggestions on Twitter. Naturally, all that screen time has got me curious about life in modern Korea, so it seemed about time that I picked up a book or two by Korean writers.

This Korean novella was a huge deal when it was released in English, winning the Man Booker International Prize in 2016. It’s an odd book and provoked a strong reaction in me, but I’m still trying to pin down what that reaction is exactly.

Yeong-hye has always been a dutiful, if dull, wife – until the day she stops eating meat. This angers her husband and family far more than it seems to merit, and they question her mental health, while she blames it on a recurring dream. Where the story goes from there either means being vegetarian in Korea is a seriously radical act, or that Yeong-hye’s decision is a symptom of something else – whether it’s marriage problems, nightmares or indeed her mental health.

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They didn’t look for long, it was more a practice series of glances

boy snow birdBoy, Snow, Bird
by Helen Oyeyemi

I remember reading Oyeyemi’s debut novel The Icarus Girl in 2005. I was simultaneously highly impressed by her writing, and jealous that someone so young was so talented. (I was at the time trying to sell my own debut novel. It was terrible. I do not blame the publishers and agents who rejected it.) Icarus Girl and Oyeyemi’s 2011 novel Mr Fox both received a rare five-star rating from me, and Boy, Snow, Bird followed suit. Oyeyemi is truly brilliant.

Boy, the lead character, runs away from her abusive father in 1950s New York and sets up home in a small New England town called Flax Hill. She takes a series of short-term jobs, never really fitting in until she marries a local man. Finally she has found safety and security. Boy finds herself stepmother to the beautiful, delicate Snow, a young girl she loves dearly until she finds herself pregnant with her own daughter, Bird.

“I was on shaky terms with [Flax Hill] for the first few months. Neither of us was sure whether or not I genuinely intended to stick around. And so the town misbehaved a little, collapsing when I went to sleep and reassembling in the morning in a slapdash manner.”

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I count all the stuff that might crash


by Emma Donoghue

This is one of those books that was everywhere when it came out and I got put off by all the coverage. Fast forward a couple of years and I finally succumbed! As expected, it was an easy-to-read, gripping story, but it was more psychologically interesting than I had expected.

The story is that of Jack, beginning on his 5th birthday, and is narrated by him. I found his voice irritating at first but it grew on me and it was certainly believable. Jack lives with his Ma in their Room and seems to live a simple, happy life with her. But fairly quickly you see that all is not simple or happy. They never leave Room, they are locked in and a mysterious man comes at night to visit Ma, while Jack hides in Wardrobe.

“Today I’m five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra. Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero. ‘Was I minus numbers?'”

This is clearly disturbing stuff, chilling even, and having the largely innocent narrator both adds to that and removes enough direct knowledge to make it readable. Had this been Ma’s account rather than Jack’s there would be more horrific details and negative emotions, whereas Jack just accepts the world his mother has built for him in their tiny space because he knows no different.

“How can TV be pictures of real things? I think about them all floating around in Outside Space outside the walls…all the shes and hes…there’s skyscrapers as well and cows and ships and trucks, it’s crammed out there, I count all the stuff that might crash into Room. I can’t breathe right.”

The idea has been well thought through. It is, psychologically speaking, completely believable. Reading it I couldn’t help but think of those shocking news reports about people like Josef Fritzl and that certainly added a chill factor, knowing that this wasn’t a completely unthinkable product of Donoghue’s imagination.

There were certain details that stood out for me, even though they’re not the disturbing bits. The mother’s attitude to nudity is super relaxed, but then they live in one room, after all. Her efforts to provide education and exercise for her son with only TV, a handful of books and grocery packaging are impressive. Jack and his mother do, to some extent, turn to religion to help them cope. She believes in God but I got the impression her faith wasn’t all that strong before Room as the details she has told Jack are a bit vague. It could be his age that has magic confused with miracles but the fact he thought Jesus was only ever a baby like in the picture they have on their wall (from a cereal packet) suggests a lack of fleshing out the faith beyond prayers.

It is quite hard to discuss this book fully without spoilers. I can see how this would make for an interesting book group read. There is a…turning point just over halfway through. When I saw it approaching I didn’t think it would work, narratively speaking, but it actually made the novel much richer, for me at least. Those of you who have read the book will hopefully understand what I am getting at! What did you think?

Published 2010 by Picador.

Source: I bought this secondhand.

Twanging those heartstrings

Me & Emma
by Elizabeth Flock

This book grew on me slowly. At first I found it a little annoying, like it was trying too hard to tug on the reader’s emotions, but then I got caught up in the story and by the end I was thoroughly enjoying it and impressed, even.

It’s narrated by eight-year-old Caroline, or Carrie, who details her life in North Carolina in her diary, or at least that’s how it’s initially presented (it doesn’t really make sense because there’s flashbacks, but I’ll let that go). Carrie daydreams a lot and loves her little sister Emma to distraction but the telling moment is when she declares that she doesn’t mind school because it gets her away from home.

Home is not a nice place for Carrie. Her stepfather is a violent drunk who coerces Emma into his bedroom frequently. Carrie’s mother either ignores or excuses the abuse and is not above beating the girls herself. It’s a shockingly horrible life and I suppose it’s a tribute to the author to say that it’s not a chore to read – somehow it’s not all negative, there’s lots of positives, at least the way Carrie sees it.

The characterisation is excellent, certainly in the case of Carrie. The prose is pretty realistically the voice of an eight year old. At first I found it a bit wearing, because eight year olds don’t have the greatest vocabulary and they do repeat annoying slang phrases and Flock has captured that very well. Thankfully she hasn’t misspelled it all realistically but she has used North Carolina vernacular.

This isn’t the greatest writing or the deepest of books and the storyline is likely to affect you more than the prose but it isn’t a bad read. Certainly better than I expected from the first few pages.

Published 2005 by Mira Books.
ISBN 978-0-7783-0084-7