The Living – Anjali Joseph

I thought, everyone has something, something they need from other people. Some people want to be loved. Some want to be admired. Some people just need to know you don’t need them to be any way other than they are.

Claire, 35, single mother to 16-year-old Jason, works in one of the remaining shoe factories in the UK.

It’s a long way from the morning till the end of the day, a long long stretch.

At the beginning of the novel, Jason tells her that his gran has phoned asking him to go round. His granddad isn’t well. Claire has only seen her parents occasionally since she left home, pregnant with Jason.

Everything about them makes me angry. Dad because he doesn’t say anything, he just lets her go on. And her because…

She’s working long shifts, trying to convince Jason to apply for college, and plagued by the antagonism between her and her mother.

Are you ill? he said. What are you doing?
Maybe I’m coming down with something, I said.
What does it feel like?
My back was heavy. It feels like I wanted to say like thirty-five years came into my body and forgot to leave. There’s too much time in here. I’m done for.

She meets Damian and thinks things are better. She might finally be moving on from Pete, Jason’s dad.

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In Kolhapur, Arun, a chappal maker and grandfather, struggles with thinking he needs to pee frequently. As his wife and one of his adult sons try to convince him to see a doctor, he thinks about the period of his life when he was an alcoholic and the effect it had on his family. He also considers the affair he had that no one else knows about.

Through his stories about his own behaviour, he also tells us about his wife and the relationship he has with her:

My wife has few flaws, but it’s exhausting to live with some one who’s always right, someone who’s self-sufficient. Since the time we were first married, she’s kept things to herself, what things I wouldn’t know, but there’s always been a part of her that wasn’t available to me.

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Her eyes clouded. Her face looked as I had never seen it – inward, bitter. I was thrilled, yet repelled. The moments when I understood her best, accepted her as she was, were also the moments when I was absolutely without desire for her. As though in being a person it was impossible for me also to be a man.

The Living is a character study of two very different people, living very different lives in two very different places. The only thing that connects the two characters is their work.

Joseph structures the novel so Claire tells half of her story, followed by Arun, and then the second halves of their stories follow in the same order. Initially, I found this irritating – both getting such a big chunk of Claire’s story before being shifted to Arun’s and Claire’s story ending part way through the book. However, three days later, I was still thinking about the book and why Joseph might have structured it in this way. My conclusion is that this gives them equal weight – no story, no person, is more valued than anyone else. These are two ordinary people living life in the best way they can, making mistakes, trying to forge and maintain relationships.

The most impressive thing about the novel though is Joseph’s piercing insight into the human condition. I hope the quotations I’ve chosen manage to convey a sense of this. I highlighted so many sentences where I thought she’d captured how it feels to be exhausted with life, aggravated by family, mortified by your own behaviour and so on.

The Living is the first of Anjali Joseph’s novels I’ve read but it won’t be the last; she’s a superb writer and The Living is a fantastic book.

 

Thanks to Fourth Estate for the review copy.

Push – Sapphire

I don’t know what “realism” mean but I do know what REALITY is and it’s a mutherfucker, lemme tell you.

Claireece Precious Jones – Precious to her friends, Claireece to ‘mutherfuckers I hate’ – 16-years-old, five feet nine or ten, two hundred pounds, is pregnant for the second time to her father.

When she refuses a parent-teacher conference with Mrs Lichenstein, she’s suspended from school. But Mrs Lichenstein does visit and via the intercom tells Precious she’s organised a place for her at Each One Teach One, located on the nineteenth floor of a local hotel. When Precious arrives and takes the test to determine which class she should join, it soon becomes clear she’s illiterate.

The tesses paint a picture of me wiv no brain. The tesses paint a picture of me ‘an my muver – my whole family, we more than dumb, we invisible…

I big, I talk, I eats, I cooks, I laugh, I watch TV, do what my muver says. But I can see when the picture come back I don’t exist. Don’t nobody want me. Don’t nobody need me. I know who I am. I know who they say I am – vampire sucking the system’s blood. Ugly black grease to be wipe away, punish, kilt, changed, finded a job for.

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Precious tells the story of her time attending the group intertwined with that of her family situation. Sexually abused by both of her parents, her mother also beats her and accuses her of stealing her husband. Since the birth of Little Mongo, Precious’ oldest child (so named because she has Down Syndrome), Precious’ mother hasn’t left the house. She expects Precious to wait on her as she claims benefits for the child who actually lives with Precious’ grandmother.

At Each One Teach One, Precious learns to write and she also finds the courage to begin fighting for the life she wants.

Push could be an unbearable read: every time you think it couldn’t get any darker, it does, but it’s balanced by Precious’ determination. This is supported by Precious’ voice which is pitch perfect and seems authentic. Sapphire’s done an incredible job not only of capturing Precious’ voice but of including her early attempts at writing as she learns the alphabet and begins to exchange words with Ms Rain, her teacher. She’s so well drawn that at times I wanted to bring her home with me and look after her; at others, I stood on the sidelines cheering her on. If you were to tell me she doesn’t exist, I’m not sure I’d believe you.

Push is a compelling story of one hell of a life, detailing the incredibly shitty deal some people are handed through no fault of their own. It also demonstrates the power of education and the enormous difference one person who cares and has access to structures can make to another. This isn’t a book you can enjoy but it is one that grips, I devoured it in one sad but hopeful gulp.

Where the River Parts – Radhika Swarup

Asha’s first memory was of trying to scale the wall that separated her house from Nargis’…Nargis’ earliest recollection was of knocking on Asha’s heavy wooden door with a bowl full of fat, cool, milk-sodden rasmalai disks in her hand…

Asha, a Hindu, and Nargis, a Muslim, grow up in the village of Suhanpur, in the north west of India. As the novel begins, Indian independence is imminent and calls for the Partition of India from the newly created Pakistan, where Suhanpur sits, are gaining traction.

In the girls’ personal lives, it is marriage which appears to be imminent. Nargis’ parents are arranging her attachment to a man in the police whom she’s met once but can’t remember much about. Asha’s father, meanwhile, is twice asked for Asha’s hand, firstly by Om and then by Firoze, Nargis’ brother and the boy Asha is in love with. Asha’s father tells Firoze he must wait until Partition is complete to see whether their Hindu family can continue to live there.

Violence fanned across the land like a flame. Trouble seeped into dry, parched plains from the arid north, and the Punjabis – excitable at the best of times – found that any spur – a look, a word, a shove – was like kindling to the fire.

Suddenly, those who read, those who had access to news, learned to differentiate. People spoke of ‘those Muslims’ and ‘those Hindus’, of separatists and patriots, of a Hindustan for Hindus and a Pakistan for Muslims. They spoke of two nations, they mourned the martyred, the shaheed. Reports came in from elsewhere – always from elsewhere – of violence. Throats were slit, men were shot, houses were torched, innocents from the wrong religion ambushed, and revenge was paid in kind.

When one of the servants becomes intent on attacking Asha, the family concede it’s time to leave. Unbeknownst to anyone, Asha is pregnant with Firoze’s child. She leaves him with no idea when they might see each other again.

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The blurb on the back of the book reveals that Asha and Firoze meet again in fifty years’ time. However, there’s a whole life to be lived before then and Asha’s contains some particularly significant events and choices.

It would be easy to call Where the River Parts a romantic novel – it is, in one sense – but it’s so much more than that. It’s an examination of the choices a woman might make to survive in a world that’s hostile towards her. While the men fight, organise and do business, Asha has to work out how to make it to tomorrow. The book also considers how the choices made – by society as well as parents – affect the beliefs and actions of future generations.

Swarup’s prose is clear and precise, describing moments of romance and friendship with the same clarity as violence and fear. There were a couple of occasions where the plot veered towards coincidences that threatened to reveal the writer’s hand at work but Swarup avoided contrivance, especially at the end of the novel.

Where the River Parts is an interesting look at a woman’s life torn apart by violence and reconstructed through huge personal sacrifice. It’s violent, bloody and often shocking but a current of love runs through it, adding humanity where it seems to have been taken away. I look forward to seeing what Radhika Swarup writes next.

 

Thanks to Sandstone Press for the review copy.

Under the Udala Trees – Chinelo Okparanta

If you set off on a witch-hunt, you will find a witch.

When you find her, she will be dressed like any other person. But to you, her skin will glow in stripes of white and black. You will see her broom, and you will hear her witch-cry, and you will feel the effect of her spells on you.

No matter how unlike a witch she is, there she will be, a witch, before your eyes.

Nigeria, 1968, a year into the Biafran War. One Sunday afternoon, Ijeoma’s father refuses to go to the bunker behind the house. When it ends, Ijeoma and her mother find him ‘face-down on the black-and-white-tiled floor of the dining room…His hands and legs were tangled strangely around his body, dying branches twisted around a dying trunk’.

His death leaves Ijeoma’s mother grief-stricken. Depressed and unable to manage the day-to-day running of a household, eleven-year-old Ijeoma takes over. Soon after, her mother decides to move. As she goes to discover the condition of her parents’ house in Aba, she sends Ijeoma to live with a former friend of Ijeoma’s father: the grammar school teacher and his wife.

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In 1970, while Ijeoma’s working as a housegirl for the grammar school teacher and his wife, living in a one-room structure behind their home, she meets Amina.

In the near darkness, our hands moved across our bodies. We took in with our fingers the curves of our flesh, the grooves. Our hands, rather than our voices, seemed to do the speaking. Our breaths mingled with the night sounds. Eventually our lips met. This was the beginning, our bodies being touched by the fire that was each other’s flesh.

When the grammar school teacher walks in on them he summons Ijeoma’s mother who takes her to Aba and doesn’t speak to her for a week. After the week’s passed, she begins what she refers to as ‘cleansing your soul’; schooling Ijeoma in the Bible, forcing meanings from stories to support her view that relationships should be heterosexual and produce children.

By the end of all those lessons, all that praying, if anyone had asked how I felt, I would have told them that I was exhausted. Not angry, not confused, not even penitent. Just exhausted.

The novel follows Ijeoma from the age of eleven until her early twenties as society, her upbringing and her religion leave her struggling to come to terms with her sexuality.

The characters and the plot are utterly convincing. This is partly to do with the society of the novel, which forces Ijeoma and others to hide part of their personality through means deemed acceptable but are actually barbaric. Where society’s rules are transgressed, there’s a high price to pay: there’s a scene where a group of women Ijeoma meets as a young woman pay a price for their apparent deception which will haunt me for a long time.

Okparanta’s language choices are also impressive, moving between poetic and prosaic, depending on the requirements of the story. Her mother’s grief leaves her so ‘even the best-tasting food had the same appeal as a leaf of paper or a palmful of sand’; a man pushing a bicycle with a coffin on the back ‘too small to fit the body inside, so that the feet of the deceased – perhaps his child or other family member – stuck out from the bottom end of the wooden box’; her mother wanting to shed things in her grief:

To shed, and shed, and shed. Like an animal casting off old hair or skin. A lizard. A snake. A cat or a dog. Even chickens molt.

To shed us all like a bad habit. Or maybe, simply, the way one casts off a set of dirty, thorn-infested clothes.

It’s almost impossible to believe that Under the Udala Trees is a debut novel. It’s beautifully crafted, gripping and heart-breaking with moments of brightness piercing the dark, hostile environment of Christian, patriarchal, heterosexual Nigeria. I’ll be astonished if this doesn’t make the shortlist of every prize it’s eligible for. Chinelo Okparanta is a major new voice in fiction.

 

Thanks to Granta for the review copy.

Small g: A Summer Idyll – Patricia Highsmith

Peter Ritter, 20, leaves a cinema in Zurich around midnight one Wednesday. He takes a shortcut through an alley on the way back to his parents’ house. There he’s mugged and stabbed by two men. He’s dead on arrival at the hospital.

Peter is the boyfriend of Rickie Markwalder, a 46-year-old illustrator who creates images for advertising campaigns. Rickie lives with his dog, Lulu, close to his studio and a Bierstube-Restaurant called Jakob’s.

This was known as the Small g at weekends, but that name wasn’t appropriate around 9:30 A.M. on any day. One of the guidebooks on Zurich’s attractions so categorized Jakob’s – with a ‘small g’ – meaning a partially gay clientele but not entirely.

The locals frequent Jakob’s on a regular basis, including Luisa, who had a two-month crush on Peter, and Luisa’s boss, Renate. Renate’s around 50 ‘somehow a spy, hostile’ and has a club foot which she hides with long skirts and high shoes with one sole thicker than the other.

Renate’s behind rumours that Peter was murdered in Rickie’s bed by a stranger he picked up whilst Rickie was working late in his studio. Rickie suspects she’s engaged Willi Biber, a local who seems to be intellectually disabled, to spread these lies. Her motivation?

‘It’s these homos everywhere that are the problem! So many – you’d think AIDS didn’t exist!’ She forced a titter. ‘They are the silly ones. Always changing partners. They have no partners, just sex en masse, you know. At the same time they flirt. They think they are handsome.’

Despite Renate’s opinion, Luisa and Rickie become friends after Rickie presents her with Peter’s scarf, a token for her to remember him by.

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The tension in the novel comes largely from Renate’s attitude towards Luisa. Luisa arrived at Renate’s after being sexually abused by her stepfather and running away from home. A job and a place to sleep seemed like ‘the luckiest thing’. But Renate tries to control Luisa, ridiculing her, expecting her to wait on her, dictating whom she can see, sending Willi to spy on her and setting a curfew which, if broken, will result in the door being bolted.

Renate enjoyed her near total control of Luisa, though at the same time realized that it had a sadistic element. Whenever these self-critical thoughts crossed her mind, she absolved herself utterly from blame or overcaution by remembering Luisa when she first presented herself – unkempt, even in need of a bath, broken fingernails, hair cut short and abominably by herself, Luisa had admitted.

The more involved Luisa becomes with Rickie and his group of friends at the Small g, the more sadistic Renate’s behaviour.

In Small g, Highsmith explores attitudes to homosexuality. She tackles prejudice by associating homophobia with the characters who are vicious and susceptible to manipulation whilst showing a group of friends – gay, lesbian, bisexual and heterosexual – having fun but ultimately being supportive, caring and understanding towards each other.

Small g was Highsmith’s final book. Having previously only read The Talented Mr Ripley, it wasn’t what I was expecting at all. I’d hesitate to call it a crime novel: if Peter’s murder’s ever solved we aren’t told about it and the other crime that’s committed midway through the book has a fairly obvious culprit and functions as a plot device to bring Freddie, a police office, back into Rickie’s life as well as further expose Renate’s shocking behaviour towards Luisa and her friends.

What this novel does do, however, is highlight friendship and its role in life; expose some unfounded attitudes towards LGBT communities, including a shocking scene regarding the HIV virus, and include two bisexual characters. The later isn’t without issues – one is a young woman whom it seems to suggest might be in an ‘experimental phase’ and the other is a married man – but it’s notable these characters exist when bisexuality’s often erased from culture.

Small g is an interesting read but probably not an essential one unless you’re a Highsmith completest.

Small g is reissued by Virago this week along with A Game for the Living, A Dog’s Ransom and Found in the Street.

 

Thanks to Virago for the review copy.

If You Look For Me, I Am Not Here – Sarayu Srivatsa

She pressed packets of black seeds of the magic peepal tree into Amma’s hand. ‘One a day,’ she said, raising her finger. ‘Eat the seed before or after the midday meal. But remember, it is before the meal for a boy and after for a girl.’

Amma took a seed out of the packet and held it between her fingers, then tossed the seed into her mouth. She ate the rice and potato curry; she finished the pachadi and the sweet. Then, after she’d eaten, when Patti was not looking, she swallowed two more seeds.

That was the precise moment when Siva’s fate looked at him cockeyed.

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Mallika, Siva’s Amma, becomes pregnant with twins: a boy and a girl. The girl, Tara, arrives with the umbilical cord still around her neck and dies moments later. The boy, Siva, survives. But Mallika wanted a girl and her grief for Tara leads her to reject Siva and accuse her husband of killing Tara. It’s not until Patti, Siva’s paternal grandmother, sees a swatch of silk – cinnamon-brown, painted with a peacock, parrot, leaves and a lotus – fly from the pages of a ledger and decides to wrap Siva in it that Mallika accepts him.

But Amma called me Tara. And Appa called me Siva. Patti called me both Tara and Siva. I was both a boy and a girl to her. Only I didn’t know whether I was a boy pretending to be a girl or the other way around. I was four years old.

The family live in a Victorian villa in Machilipatnam, South India. The villa was previously owned by an Englishman, George Gibbs and is now the property of the institute which bears his name, the institute of which Appa is now director. There he researches mosquitoes and malaria.

During Mallika’s pregnancy, she finds George Gibbs’ ledger in the attic of the house. Part-inventory for textile dyeing, part-diary, his words are incorporated throughout the story, eventually becoming interwoven in unexpected ways.

At the back of the site they found a grave, with human bones embedded in the dust. A skull smiled up at them from the dirt…The contractor asked me to find another location for the house…[he] gravely told me that ghosts had memories and they looked for someone to latch on to. If I lived here on this land, then the dead person’s memories would seep into me and haunt me all my days.

It’s George Gibbs’ ledger which the swatch of silk flies from that Patti wraps Siva in. It’s this act which seems to ensure that Gibbs’ memories will affect Siva’s life.

Siva spends his childhood and adolescence questioning whether he is a boy or a girl. He looks at the people around him; he learns about exceptions; he meets Sweetie-Cutie and a group of hijras; he reads George Gibbs’ ledger, and throughout it all he wonders whether Tara still exists inside of him.

Through Siva’s story, Srivatsa questions whether a person’s gender is created or is innate. While Gibbs’ story allows her to examine whether history does repeat itself in the same place and suggests there might be a more positive future for those whose gender is more complex than the male/female binary allows for.

The whole novel’s told in striking, playful prose. Whether she’s describing the howling of the wind which echoes Amma’s cries: ooooowr-oooowar-oowat-oowata-oowata-r-wate-r or Tara’s appearances in Siva’s head, like when Patti decides to take a stray dog in and names it Churchill: I shaped my mouth and said something like ‘Cha-chi’. Cha-chi-cha-chi, Tara went on and on in my head or describing Siva’s feelings on the return of Mallika’s depression:

My bare necessities became bare. I despaired, and so would Baloo the Bear despair. I should have known then, it was the beginning of ‘over’ time.

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If You Look For Me, I Am Not Here is a stunning book. It deals with pertinent issues of gender through interwoven stories of two cultures. The tales are completely engrossing and the writing’s both inventive and precise. I’ll be surprised if I read many better books this year.

 

Thanks to Bluemoose Books for the review copy.

‘Should I live in this world which is mingled with such violence and such beauty?’ Han Kang at Foyles, Charing Cross Road

On Wednesday I travelled to London for one of Han Kang’s few UK appearances. In the event space at the top of the Foyles’ flagship store, Kang spoke for over an hour with Philippe Sands, supported by her translator Yunjung Sun Kim. It was a fascinating discussion.

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Sands began by asking Kang to explain a bit about her latest novel just published in English (brilliantly translated by Deborah Smith) Human Acts.

It’s about Gwangju in 1980 when an event took place which some refer to as an uprising and others a massacre. There was a military coup, power was seized and demonstrations took place. The response to these demonstrations was mass shootings. The troops then retreated for ten days, during which there was civilian autonomy. At the end of those ten days, the army returned with tanks.

He then asked Kang about the personal nature of the book for her.

She said she was born in Gwangju in 1970 and lived there until she was nine years and two months old when her family moved to Seoul. It was a coincidence they left before the uprising took place. ‘We were not hurt because we were not there.’ She said they were left with survivors’ guilt.

Photobooks were circulated secretly to let survivors know the truth about the dead. The books contained photographs of corpses. ‘My parents wanted to protect me from that book.’ But Kang looked at one in her parents’ house. ‘I was scared.’ If she’d been older, she might have been filled with rage and hatred but at ten, it left her scared of human cruelty. She said it raised two riddles for her: the first was ‘How can human beings be so violent?’ and the second, ‘How could people do something against extreme violence?’ She said these riddles were ‘…imprinted on my mind. A defining experience for me.’

Sands pushed her on the building that Dong-Ho, the main character lives in, being the building Kang and her family lived in and Dong-Ho himself being a boy she knew but Kang sidestepped the question telling us that the book’s 80% fact, 20% fiction. It was clear throughout the interview that the massacre and it’s affect on her is a painful subject to discuss.

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At this point there was a reading, taken from the editor’s chapter [chapter three] when the editor goes to see a theatre production of a script that was very heavily censored by the authorities. Deborah Smith came onstage to read the English translation which was followed by Han Kang reading the same section in Korean. It was really interesting to hear a section read by the writer in the original language.

Sands then asked what caused Kang to choose this subject and why she chose to treat it in this form.

She referred again to the two riddles. They were her internal motivation. ‘I wanted to figure out why I’m struggling to embrace human beings.’ She said she had to figure out the answers to her questions or she couldn’t go anywhere with her writing.

Her external motivation was the social cleansing which took place in the Yongsan area of Seoul in 2009. Five residents and one police officer died when a fire started in a building where people were protesting against the eviction of the residents to make way for developers. She said she was watching the news in a ‘warm and comfortable’ room. ‘I bet it’s Gwangju,’ she said. ‘I realised Gwangju is all around us.’

Who are you writing the book for? Sands asked.

Kang said she mostly started to write the book because of her internal questions. She began to collect materials and realised there was no room for her self-consciousness in the novel. ‘I was not important anymore. I wanted to lend my life to them. To the people who were killed there.’

She did more research, reading about Bosnia and Auschwitz. She said she felt a threat that she’d lose all her trust in mankind.

The change in her thinking came when she read a diary entry by a civilian killed on the last night of the massacre. A high school teacher in the civilian militia’s provincial office. She said it read like a prayer and led to her wanting to reach human dignity even though she started the novel from human violence.

She said of the boy at the centre of the novel: ‘Sometimes he was dragging me towards the second riddle’ and of the book: ‘That process has transformed me’. She talked of a moment in the mother’s chapter of the book [the one that I found most difficult to read] where the boy’s holding his mother’s hand and he leads her to the flowers on the brighter side of the road. ‘This book is just for the boy. The boy has written this novel, not me.’

Sands commented that the book is an incredibly brutal journey. How was it written and what was Kang’s decision-making process in writing the opening?

She talked about the opening being in the darkest place and the boy wanting to light candles. He covers the body with white sheets and then there’s the lighting of candles again. ‘It looks brutal…but I believe there are chords of this warming.’ She said in the second chapter [when the boy’s friend’s body is laid in a pile of corpses and he tells us about his life] that the boy’s life was dignified. ‘The face of human dignity’ is there, she said.

Sands asked her what she was hoping to achieve and the techniques she used in creating the novel.

‘I felt this was the only way to talk about the boy’s life and death.’

She said she used the second person perspective because ‘You is someone who is present’ and she wanted the boy to be present. He comes back throughout the book because the survivors want to remember him; they call him to the present. [The book ends in 2013.] She said readers could also assemble the broken moments of the boys last days and hours through the survivors’ stories. ‘The boy is coming to the present. That’s what I wanted.’

She didn’t know how to structure the novel. She said she was ‘lost’ while researching until she found the citizen’s diary and then she arranged it into six chapters. She didn’t restructure again after that. She said sometimes she’s confident in arranging chapters, ‘Sometimes I get lost’.

How was the book received in South Korea? asked Sands.

It was well received. ‘More than I expected. Maybe they wanted to remember this massacre for a long time. They didn’t want to erase these memories.’ Human Acts was on the bestseller list for a year in South Korea.

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The discussion was then opened up to questions from the audience.

Where there people who didn’t want the stories to be told?

Kang said that so many years had passed so she didn’t have to interview people. ‘I didn’t have to hurt anyone.’ She said that painful testimonies had already been given. She repeated, ‘I didn’t hurt anyone’ two more times.

Has the novel been published in other countries and what was the response?

She mentioned the Netherlands and France in the future. She said it’s weird to meet readers in the UK, ‘It’s a very personal book of mine’ but that we share human ideas.

She was asked specifically about publication in China. ‘Maybe it’s impossible.’ She said she’s spoken to the Chinese publisher but because the book deals with massacre and censorship it might not be possible to publish it.

How much of the truth about Gwangju has come out?

In the 1980s information was destroyed. The event was isolated. In 1997 it was memorialised. The current regime doesn’t want to remember though.

The discussion leads on to the single textbook the current regime is proposing. Kang said it’s concerning that no one knows who’s going to write it.

Sands commented that it would be fantastic to have Human Acts on the curriculum.

‘Some people have talked about it! I hoped many students could read this novel. I did my best to promote this book as much as I could.’

She said she’s been to schools to talk about the book and the massacre. 15-year-olds in South Korea were quite ignorant about it. She said the events in the book frightened them but they were relieved that they’d realised the truth.

Did Gwangju affect her other novel (The Vegetarian)?

She said they’re both a personal or inner conflict about humans.

Why did it take so long to write about Gwangju?

She said she revised some stories she wrote in her early 20s and there was human violence in them. The Vegetarian is about whether it’s possible to be perfectly innocent in this violent world, which is why the central character wants to become a plant. ‘The two books are intertwined. It’s like a pair.’

‘Writing is questioning for me.’ The question that she’s asking in Human Acts is ‘Should I live in this world which is mingled with such violence and such beauty?’ She said, ‘I lost my trust to human beings since I looked at the photobook. How can I embrace human beings?’

Sands asked whether she had any more of an answer as to how humans can inflict such violence on each other?

Kang replied that Human Acts is also very anti-human acts. She said she read a piece by a Korean essayist who was on a bus when war broke out, looking at the life around him. He realised that he was crying and came to the conclusion, ‘Maybe I love human beings’.

While writing the novel, ‘I came to thinking about my pain’. She said that readers might do the same as they’re reading. Maybe we feel pain about human atrocity and maybe this is the key to preserving human dignity. Maybe we love human beings.

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At this point Sands invited Deborah Smith back to the stage to discuss the process of translating the book. How? he asked.

‘It was a hell of a challenge. The language will allow you to do things in Korean you can’t do in English.’ In Korean you don’t need to state the subject all the time. The book moves ‘swiftly and subtly…between the individuals…and then pans out to a…national, political, social level. The lack of a stated subject allows the we and the I to blend together.’ This is disorientating but effective.

Sands asked about the exchange between Kang and Smith.

Smith said that she translated the whole thing and then Max Porter edited that draft. Kang then read that draft meticulously, picking up mistakes in the subtext and making incredibly detailed notes for Smith. These notes included the historical context and Kang’s inspirations, intentions and stylistic decisions. Smith then returned to the translation and reworked it.

Smith said that for Human Acts Kang had to explain the context and the dialects.

‘I really enjoyed exchanging emails,’ Kang added.

The event had to end there as it had run well over time. It was an incredible evening. The audience was rapt with attention, partly because Kang is so softly spoken but also because of the nature of the discussion. It was a privilege to be there.

If you’re interesting in knowing more about the process of translating Human Acts, Deborah Smith has written an excellent essay published in Asymptote.

The Expatriates – Janice Y.K. Lee

The husbands get up in the morning, put on their suits, and take taxi-shares or minibuses or are driven to work in the tall, shiny office buildings in Central, while the women putter around the house before getting ready for their tennis match or going in to volunteer at the library, since they mostly had to give up their jobs when they moved. It all feels a bit like The Truman Show.

The Expatriates focuses on three women living in Hong Kong. Margaret Reade, her husband, Clarke, and their three children arrived three years ago from the U.S. Clarke’s about to turn 50 and Margaret’s hired a planner to organise a big celebration for him. But Margaret’s story is really about her third child, only ever referred to as ‘G’ who went missing on a family trip to Seoul and still hasn’t been found.

Mercy, 27, has also been in Hong Kong for three years. A Columbia graduate, she became part of the rich crowd on account of her being pretty. She never volunteered any information about her own, much more modest, upbringing. Struggling to get started on a career in New York, she left for Hong Kong doing a series of jobs until she met Margaret. She was the nanny in charge when G went missing.

The third woman, Hilary, is a friend of Margaret’s. She’s spent eight years trying for a baby although she hasn’t seen a doctor about it because she’s frightened of pregnancy and what it might do to her body.

It is not the idea of being pregnant that moves her. She would like a child. She would like to be a mother.

She’s visited a local orphanage and chosen a child who she’s named Julian. Unlikely to be adopted because he’s mixed race and not a baby, Hilary has circumvented the rules and arranged for Julian to come to her house to have piano lessons.

Hilary and her husband, David, a senior attorney, are growing apart. Civil but rarely in the same room, another friend hints that he’s having an affair. Unbeknownst to Hilary but clear to the reader, the woman David’s sleeping with is Mercy. The joy of small communities, eh?

Lee explores the loss of a child from two different angles: Margaret as the parent whose child’s been taken and Mercy as the nanny seemingly at fault. Both are interesting. Margaret’s is the most compelling and watching how it affects her on a daily basis, the impact it has on her other children and what happens when a glimmer of hope appears is interesting. Mercy’s is engaging from the point-of-view she expresses early in the novel:

These stories always talk about the victim, and how she or he is coping…But what Mercy wants to know is never there. The person responsible for the calamity is never mentioned…The victims are richly sympathized with, and their guilty, confused perpetrators are erased from the story. They don’t exist. They are supposed to disappear.

What did all those people do?

What are their stories?

She knows her own. She sits at home, eats almost nothing, looks at her dwindling bank account online, and wonders when she’s supposed to start her life again, when she is allowed.

Hilary’s story also explores loss, that of a marriage and potential children as well as touching on what Julian, the orphan, has lost from his life. Hilary’s story is at its most interesting when she’s criticised on an online forum for bending the rules to spend time with Julian without committing to adoption.

Lee considers what it’s like to be an expatriate more generally, as well as focusing on these specific women’s stories:

This is what bothered her: the presumption of the expatriates in Hong Kong. It is unspoken, except by the most obnoxious, but it is there in their actions. The way they loudly demand ice in their drinks or for the AC to be turned up or down or for “Diet Coke, not Coke Zero,” as if everyone thought the distinction was crucial. The idea, so firmly entrenched, that they could be louder, demand more, because they were somehow above – really, better than – the locals. How did that still exist in this day and age?

There’s no doubt that Margaret and Hilary are incredibly privileged with regards to money and lifestyle. Lee’s portrayal of the expatriate community shows that life happens regardless of how much money your family has access to and you can still be left with what feels like a gaping hole.

The Expatriates is a mixed bag. Some parts of the storylines – the impact of the loss of G – are compelling; others seem to rely too much on coincidence and high drama – David and Mercy’s affair, in particular – and the ending errs too far over the fairy tale line with regards to what’s gone before it. Personally, I felt the novel as a whole was in thrall to motherhood, suggesting that it was a fulfilling proposition for women in a variety of circumstances. However, if you’re looking for a saga of intertwined lives touched by a terrible incident, this might be for you.

 

Thanks to Little, Brown for the review copy.

Human Acts – Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)

Last January, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was published in English garnering critical acclaim from the broadsheet press and bloggers alike, including this one: I included it in my Books of 2015 list. The tale of a woman who became a vegetarian despite cultural stigma leading to the breakdown of her marriage and family relations before the deterioration of her mental and physical self, it’s an unusual book and one which images from linger long after reading.

On the surface Human Acts appears to be more straightforward. It’s the story of the aftermath of the student uprising in Gwangju, South Korea in 1980. It begins with ‘The Boy’, Dong-Ho outside the municipal gymnasium. He’s listening to the memorial service for the bodies being brought to the gym for families to identify. After the service, he returns inside to continue helping those who arrive looking for missing friends and relatives. Kang makes this section all the more effective by narrating it in second person:

When you first saw her, she was still recognisably a smallish woman in her late teens or early twenties; now, her decomposing body has bloated to the size of a grown man. Every time you pull back the cloth for someone who has come to find a daughter or younger sister, the sheer rate of decomposition stuns you. Stab wounds slash down from her forehead to her left eye, her cheekbone to her jaw, her left breast to her armpit, gaping gashes where the raw flesh shows through. The right side of her skull has completely caved in, seemingly the work of a club, and the meat of her brain is visible.

We soon learn that Dong-Ho initially came to the gym to search for his own friend but ended up becoming part of the team on realising how chronically understaffed they were. By this point, all the morgues were full so the dead were being brought straight to the gym.

The second section moves to the voice of Dong-Ho’s friend, Jeong-dae:

Our bodies are piled on top of each other in the shape of a cross.

The body of a man I don’t know has been thrown across my stomach at a ninety-degree angle, face up, and on top of him a boy, older than me, tall enough that the crook of his knees press down onto my bare feet. The boy’s hair brushed my face. I was able to see all of that because I was still stuck fast to my body then.

His soul starts to leave his body as it begins to rot, eventually leaving it altogether when soldiers return and set fire to the pile of corpses. It’s a section that sounds like it shouldn’t work but it’s deeply affecting. Kang contrasts Jeong-dae’s descriptions of the pile of bodies and its surroundings with memories of his sister whom he also knows is dead.

The novel progresses through sections told by an editor in 1985, a prisoner in 1990, a factory girl in 2002, Dong-Ho’s mother in 2010 and ‘the writer’ in 2013. Through them the events of the uprising and its brutal suppression are shown. Dong-Ho’s personal story is central to Kang’s narrative; as it unravels, some shocking betrayals are revealed. What also connects these strands is the violence of the state. The editor, who is Kim Eun-sook, the woman who convinced Dong-ho to stay and help in the municipal gymnasium, tells her part of the story through the seven slaps she was given by an interrogator. Kang subjects the reader to this violence suddenly. It’s repeatedly shocking, not only due to the brutality of it but also because of the way in which it’s juxtaposed with calmer passages.

It’s difficult to comment on a translation when you don’t speak the original language but what’s clear is that Smith has made each voice consistently distinct, a challenging task for any writer without the addition of faithfully translating another’s words. The prose is sharp, brutal and affecting.

What Human Acts has in common with The Vegetarian is a similarity in structure, a story told from multiple points of view, and Kang’s offbeat way of viewing the world: she comes at this story from unusual perspectives and it’s all the better for it. Human Acts is a triumph.

 

If you’re in London next week, Han Kang is making two appearances. The first is at the Free Word Centre on Monday 11th where she’ll be interviewed by Susie Orbach. The second is at Foyles Charing Cross Road where she’ll be interviewed by Philippe Sands. If you can’t make either, I’ll be at the latter and will be blogging about the event afterwards.

 

Thanks to Deborah Smith for the review copy.

The Long Room – Francesca Kay

An old man hums in Stephen’s ear, and wheezes, sucking deeply on his cigarette; he is chronically short of breath. He has been having trouble with his heating; he cannot get his boiler to stay lit. It has taken several telephone calls and much hanging on the line to secure a visit from a plumber in a fortnight’s time.

28-year-old, Stephen Donaldson is a spy. It’s 1981 and he spends most of his time listening to recordings of telephone calls made by old men who support revolutionary causes but, to Stephen’s mind, are unlikely to pose a threat any more. Only one of the targets Stephen’s tasked with monitoring really appeals to him. It’s a top-secret operation, code-named Phoenix, monitoring someone inside the agency, but that’s not the most interesting thing about it for him, Stephen’s fallen in love with the target’s wife.

It is by magic, Stephen thinks, that this woman’s voice comes straight to him from a room that he has never seen, and catches at his throat, that it stirs in him a yearning that is new, unnameable; a hunger of the heart. It makes her feel so intimately close. It tells him everything about her. And yet, although each time she tells him something new, Stephen knows that he has always known her. From the dawn of time their souls have been entwined and waiting: now hers is calling him.

In the fortnight before Christmas, Stephen will help his arthritic,lonely mother prepare for Christmas Day; work on intelligence indicating a possible IRA bombing; meet in a local pub and strike up a friendship with a man called Alberic, and report to Rollo Buckingham as to his progress with Phoenix.

It’s the latter of these which gives the first indications that a disaster for Stephen might be imminent. When Rollo tells Stephen the investigation’s up for review in under a month ‘and if there is nothing conclusive then the Director will almost certainly decide to revoke the licence’, the narrator tells us:

All right then, Stephen will provide one [a resolution]. He is not prepared to part with Helen for the sake of narrow-minded and prosaic truth. He had though that time was on his side but now he knows it’s not and so he must move fast. And besides, if PHOENIX is a traitor – and there must be some good reason why he is under surveillance – he must obviously be caught.

Initially Stephen suggests nuances in Phoenix’s tone which might indicate an issue but it’s not long before he’s inventing occurrences.

I guessed what might be considered the twist in this novel fairly early on but I’m not sure whether it was conceived as a twist as my apprehension of it playing out ratcheted the tension and had me turning pages watching, horrified, as events unfolded.

Kay raises questions as to how working in intelligence, listening to the same mundane voices and conversations on a daily basis, isolated by headphones, affects someone. Stephen’s unrequited love is clearly a product of his own imagination but there are enough ambiguities in the telling to leave you wondering whether Stephen was always going to slip up or whether he’s been set up. This is a tightly plotted, tense novel that will grip you until the final page.

 

Thanks to Faber & Faber for the review copy.