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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I wish for this intrusion, I’ve hoped for it ever since I began

The story of the lost childThe Story of the Lost Child
Book 4, The Neapolitan Novels: Maturity, Old Age
by Elena Ferrante
translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein

Next week Tim and I are heading to Campania for our holiday, specifically to Pompeii and Ischia – the island that features prominently in the second volume of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, The Story of a New Name – so this seemed like a good time to read the final part of the series.

This book details the final few decades of the friendship of Elena and Lila, from their early 30s to the moment that opens the series: when 60-something-year-old Elena hears that her oldest friend has gone missing. The backdrop to their friendship is the changing society and politics of Naples, and in particular their own neighbourhood, a rough place filled with corruption.
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That summed up the whole mess: heartburn

heartburnHeartburn
by Nora Ephron

Man, Nora Ephron was funny. Sadly this was her only novel, but as it is the thinnest veneer of fiction over autobiography, I guess it’s not so far from her brilliant essays. This beautiful new edition from Virago Modern Classics was the centrepiece of a Waterstones window display and tempted me into the shop to buy a copy, then also led me to buy three other books because, you know, I was in a bookshop.

It’s the story of Rachel who, seven months pregnant with her second child, discovers that her husband is not only cheating on her, but has fallen in love with the other woman. She must now figure how to move on with her life while protecting her toddler son Sam. And she has to reassess her marriage to Mark, which turns out to have been on rocky ground from the very start.

“When Mark and I married we were rich and two years later we were broke. Not actually broke – we did have equity. We had a stereo system that had eaten thousands of dollars, and a country house in West Virginia that had eaten tens of thousands of dollars, and a city house in Washington that had eaten hundreds of thousands of dollars, and we had things – God, did we have things…now, of course, I understand it all a little better, because the other thing that ate our money was the affair with Thelma Rice. Thelma went to France in the middle of it, and you should see the phone bills.”

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A vibration, very far off, chafing the air

The Greatcoat
by Helen Dunmore

Helen Dunmore, who sadly died on 5 June, spent the last years of her life in Bristol. I’ve read and enjoyed a few of her books and I wanted to honour her by reading one I had heard praised many times. It doesn’t hurt that this book was part of the launch of Hammer Books – a horror imprint from Arrow Books and the great film studio Hammer.

The story is set at the end of 1952. Winter is closing in on the small Yorkshire town where Isabel has moved with her new husband, Philip. He’s a doctor, working at the local surgery. She’s educated and would like to work, but Philip is keen for her to learn how keep house and prepare herself for motherhood. This leaves her sat at home struggling to learn to cook with still-rationed food, or out meeting other housewives who make it clear her education marks her as different. She’s lonely.

“She put her hands on the cold sill, ready to draw her head back inside, but a sound arrested her: a vibration, very far off, chafing the air. She listened for a long time but the sound wouldn’t come any closer and wouldn’t define itself. As it faded it pulled at her teasingly, like a memory that she couldn’t touch, until the town was silent.”

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In the endless silence of the night you watch your evil garden grow

My Beautiful Shadow
by Radhika Jha

This was an odd read – a well-written book about a character I found it extremely hard to empathise with. Which is not something I generally shy away from in my reading, but it turns out there’s only so much detailed description of shopping and fashion that I can cope with!

Kayo might live in Tokyo, one of the world’s largest cities, but her world is small. She marries her high school boyfriend straight from school, and is immediately plunged into the life of the housewife, only leaving home to shop or get her hair done. When she has her first child a year later, her life gets even more lonely. On her rare outings she feels keenly that she is the harassed unkempt young mother, sharing the streets with glamorous office ladies whom she can never befriend.

Two things step in to change this for her. Kayo’s mother, offended at not having been invited to her daughter’s wedding or told about the birth of her first grandchild, turns up on the doorstep one day and hands Kayo a large cheque in lieu of the wedding kimono a mother would usually buy her daughter. It is understood between the two women that this will be their last meeting. Kayo decides not to tell her husband and uses the money to open her own bank account. She finally has the means to create a little freedom for herself.

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In our house money was a god. But it was an angry, careful god

Rebuilding Coventry
by Sue Townsend

Sue Townsend was reliably both funny and socially relevant, and she doesn’t disappoint here. The title doesn’t refer to the Midlands town’s destruction in World War Two – it is, rather, about a woman called Coventry.

Coventry Dakin introduces herself with two facts: she’s beautiful and she killed a man. Specifically, her neighbour Gerald Fox. And now she’s on the run in London, without her handbag.

Killing Gerald was a spur of the moment decision, hence Coventry’s less-than-perfect running-away outfit. We learn the story behind the murder and the fallout for Coventry’s husband and children, interspersed between Coventry’s survival on the streets of the capital.

This being a comedy, there is an element of the ridiculous to much of the action. The murder weapon is an Action Man doll. She had been in the middle of cleaning her chimney, so she’s wearing old clothes and covered in soot. Her husband Derek is really only interested in his tortoises.

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Great swaths of her life were white space to her husband

fates-and-furiesFates and Furies
by Lauren Groff

This is some ways the very epitome of “literary fiction” and yet it defied my expectations many times. I had expected to like it, after thoroughly enjoying Groff’s previous novel The Monsters of Templeton. This is quite different, but once again, really good.

It’s the story of a marriage, that of Lotto and Mathilde. What makes this book different is that the entire marriage is told from Lotto’s perspective, and then from Mathilde’s. The narrative voice, revealed occasionally in square-bracketed asides, is first the Fates (for Lotto) and then the Furies (for Mathilde). As you might guess from that, Lotto’s story is all about his fate: who he is meant to become, what is meant to achieve. Mathilde’s story is largely about her fury, how it drives her.

“The Buddha laughed in silence from the mantelpiece. Around him, a lushness of poinsettias. Below, a fire Lotto had dared to make out of sticks collected from the park. Later, there would be a chimney fire, a sound of wind like a rushing freight train, and the trucks arriving in the night.”

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Light travels differently in a room that contains another person

usUs
by David Nicholls

I’ve enjoyed David Nicholls novels in the past, but the hype around this one, partly because it was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, suggested it was something a bit different, a break from the usual. I was unsure how to feel about that, but I gave it a go and now I’m befuddled, because to me it felt exactly like a David Nicholls novel.

That’s not a criticism of the novel, only of the marketing. Well, maybe it’s a little bit a criticism of the novel, in that I’m not sure exactly why this was deemed more literary, more mature in style, because to me it’s not. It’s a sweet, easy-to-read tale that’s more about plot than the writing. It is often introspective and soul-searching and I very much enjoyed it. I just…thought I might get a little more from it.

The novel opens with middle-aged Douglas being woken by his wife Connie who says that she is leaving him. Or she thinks she wants to. Their marriage isn’t working for her anymore and in a few months’ time, when their son Albie leaves home for university, she will probably leave too. In the meantime, it’s the summer when they had intended to take Albie on the trip of a lifetime, an old-fashioned grand tour around Europe, or at least its greatest art galleries. Connie wants to go ahead and so Douglas throws himself into planning the best holiday ever, hoping that maybe this way he can salvage his marriage.

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If nothing comes near, I’ll be here, still

Stone in a Landslide

Stone in a Landslide
by Maria Barbal
translated from Catalan by Laura McGloughlin and Paul Mitchell

This book takes a whole life and tells it in less than 120 pages, which is both its strength and its weakness. There is some beautiful writing, but there’s also a lot of speeding past things that another writer might have taken a whole novel to explore. It feels like a bit of a missed opportunity.

The life told is that of Conxa, a poor Catalan woman whose story begins when she is a child in the early 20th century. There are three major things that happen in her life that each could have been central to a chunky novel but here are dealt with in 10 or 15 pages. First, she is from a large rural family that can’t easily support all the children, while her aunt and uncle are childless and need help to manage their house and land, so at 13 Conxa is sent on a day’s journey, the furthest she has ever travelled, to begin a new life at her aunt’s house. She has gone from countryside to small town, from familiar to unfamiliar and it takes years for her to settle in.

“My mother was a woman who knew only two things: how to work and how to save…She was always the last to go to bed and sometimes she’d say a rosary. But for all her devotion, I’m sure she didn’t even get to half a mystery. Her tiredness must have held her trapped, like a sparrow in a snare.”

Perhaps the biggest thing, from Conxa’s perspective, is her falling in love with Jaume. He’s a builder and carpenter who travels a lot for his work, and consequently is much more worldly and politically aware then Conxa, who shies away from such things. I found it difficult to sympathise with Conxa’s lack of interest in the wider world, even though the story is narrated by her voice, so we hear her reasons first hand. It keeps the story very narrow, telling just her life rather than the history of the world or Spain or even just Catalonia at that time, which I can see has its advantages, but it’s not the perspective I would prefer to read.

The final major event for Conxa is the Spanish Civil War. While the First World War appears to have happened without even a hint of it in Conxa’s narrative, the Spanish Civil War is unavoidable. Jaume’s interest in politics makes his absences from home suspicious and it’s little surprise when terror comes to their doorstep. But still Conxa never offers explanation or her own opinion, only fear.

“I feel like a stone after a landslide. If someone or something stirs it, I’ll come tumbling down with the others. If nothing comes near, I’ll be here, still, for days and days.”

Weaving between and around these three is the everyday life of sustenance farming and village gossip. And none of these are things that lack interest, or told badly, only too briefly to really make me feel involved. I usually like spare prose but I think this was too much of an extreme and I just wanted there to be more to it.

Pedra de Tartera published 1985 by Columna Edicions.
This translation published 2010 by Peirene Press.

Source: Bought direct from the publisher.

The mystery that shape-shifted at the edge of her senses

The Snow Child

The Snow Child
by Eowyn Ivey

This book was almost ruined for me by Book at Bedtime. The thing is, I love that Book at Bedtime exists, I do, but when a full-length novel is compressed into 10 15-minute segments, then necessarily a lot is cut out. A lot. (For comparison, the unabridged audio book of this is almost 11 hours.) I listened to The Snow Child on Book at Bedtime and thought ‘Huh. I don’t get the hype at all.’ And that was very nearly that.

I had read so many glowing reviews by fellow bloggers I usually share a taste in books with that I kept thinking that maybe I would give it another chance. Maybe. But I didn’t add it to my wishlist. So thank goodness I spotted it in a bookswap and decided to pick it up. From page one I was captivated.

“All her life she had believed in something more, in the mystery that shape-shifted at the edge of her senses. It was the flutter of moth wings on glass and the promise of river nymphs in the dappled creek beds. It was the smell of oak trees on the summer evening she fell in love, and the way dawn threw itself across a cow pond and turned the water to light.”

The story is adapted from the old Russian fairy tale “Snegurochka” and cleverly acknowledges this. Jack and Mabel are in their older middle age when they move to Alaska in the 1920s, looking for a fresh start. They cannot forget the sadness caused by their inability to have children and their marriage is fragile. Will the harshness of farming in Alaska heal them or break them?

“Words lay like granite boulders in her lap and when at last she spoke, each one was heavy and burdensome and all she could manage.”

The book opens at the start of their second Alaskan winter. Mabel is about ready to give up, Jack is seriously considering taking a very dangerous mining job that would take him away for most of the winter. Then the first snow falls and in a bittersweet scene of childlike play, the couple build a snowgirl. In the morning their snowgirl is gone and child-sized footsteps lead away from it. Are they just misreading the tracks in the snow? Did their snowgirl just get knocked down by a fox or other wild creature?

Perhaps, but at about that time they start seeing a small girl near their home, usually accompanied by a red fox, just like in the storybook Mabel remembers loving as a child, and she becomes convinced that they brought the girl to life with their desperate longing. The girl, Faina, slowly becomes a part of their lives. But is she real? Or is she, as Jack and Mabel’s (distant) neighbours George and Esther believe, a figment of their imaginations, a coping mechanism through the long lonely winter?

I like that the book provides realistic as well as magical explanations for everything that happens and never makes one more likely than the other. There is a definite fairytale feeling to the writing and yet it doesn’t shy away from the harshness of the Alaskan environment. Without ever getting repetitive or depressing, Ivey makes the cold and darkness of winter ever-present. But she also displays great love and respect for Alaska that I found enticing.

“A red fox darted among the fallen trees. It disappeared for a minute but popped up again, closer to the forest, running with its fluffy tail held low to the ground. It stopped and turned its head. For a moment its eyes locked with Jack’s, and there, in its narrowing golden irises, he saw the savagery of the place. Like he was staring wilderness itself straight in the eye.”

Just as I already knew the storyline before reading the book (which didn’t spoil it at all for me, though I’m still going to hold back from revealing any more of the story in this review) I also already knew, thanks to various reviews I’d read and an interview with Eowyn Ivey on The Readers, that whenever Faina speaks there are no speechmarks, for her or for the person speaking directly to her. But there are speechmarks everywhere else. This is a really clever way of maintaining the mystery, especially in the brief sections where it seems like maybe everything has been neatly explained.

Really, it’s a very simple story. And anyone who has read any of the versions of the old fairy tale (the Arthur Ransome version is included in my copy of the book, which I thought a nice touch) could have a fair stab at how it will turn out. But, for me at least, this book was about the language. Despite being hooked I read it quite slowly because it was the kind of language that slows you down, makes you want to take in each sentence. Exquisite.

Published 2012 by Headline.

Source: A book swap.

See also: reviews by Simon of Savidge Reads and Ellie of Curiosity Killed the Bookworm.