Archive for the ‘Criticism’ Category

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We all know that old bloke on the corner who glowers at us, the one with a face like a bulldog sucking lemons, the one who barks at us for dropping litter or parking in the wrong place. The one who we suspect goes around the house grumbling about the radiators being on.

Hell, I fear I am becoming that man. Becoming Ove.

We first meet Ove as an irascible and archetypally grumpy old man seeking simply to drill a hook into his ceiling when he in interrupted by new neighbours reversing a trailer into his fence and post box. The neighbours, Parvaneh and Patrick and their daughters slowly inveigle their way into Ove’s life bit-by-bit as the novel progresses – interrupted by a series of flashbacks to Ove’s childhood and young adulthood, and his courtship with his wife, Sonja. And there is real tragedy within the story: dead fathers, burned homes, babies lost, cancer.

The trials and tribulations of the neighbourhood in which Ove was a stalwart member and founder of the Residents’ Association, however, was heartwarming and touching. The threat to remove Rune, a neighbour and one-time friend, long-time rival of Ove’s, to a nursing home because of Alzheimer’s, which finally motivates Ove to stand up to the anonymous men in white shirts. Jimmy, the overweight neighbour whose mum Ove and Sonja had helped to stand up to an abusive boyfriend and who styed behind in his mum’s house. Mirsad, struggling to come out as gay to his paprents. And, of course, Parvaneh who manages to be supportive without being a doormat.

I believe the novel started life as a blog and it does have that episodic feel to it, especially in the first half as it bounces between past and present but there is a coherent narrative running through the novel: six months before we meet Ove, his wife had died and he has started methodically and doggedly planning to commit suicide in order to meet her again in Heaven. And this is where the novel jarred a little for me: attempted suicide, interrupted by the mundane demands of life, are not really the stuff of humour and it felt like Backman was playing it for humour. His attempt to hang himself fails because the rope breaks, for example; his attempt to gas himself in the car fails because Patrick fell from a ladder. These section felt off to me. Uncomfortable.

And too easily solved: bleed a radiator here, adopt a cat there, all your suicidal ideations will be fixed. Offer a neighbour a box of saffron rice to save their lives. Pretend your kids are allergic to cats – cats who bizarrely trot happily around the neighbourhood and pop into cars and restaurants with their new owners, despite an apparent feral and stray life previously – and all will be well. Foist a gay teenager onto them and they will thrive!

The writing style does take a while to get used to – and listening to it as an audiobook may not have helped – as it is very much from Ove’s point-of-view and replete with his dismissive and judgmental observations. But it is convincing and well put together and the conclusion – whilst inevitable – did bring a tear to the eye and a lump to my throat on a drive to work. So Backman was obviously doing something right!

The book that seems to be most often linked to this one on Amazon, Audible and Goodreads is Eleanor Oliphant is Perfectly Fine by Gail Honeyman: two unconventional protagonists, both misunderstood, both dealing with a tragic and secret backstory. This is a shame because, whilst A Man Called Ove is an effective and moving and, yes, heartwarming read despite my discomfort in places, Eleanor Oliphant is, in my opinion, by far the superior book: more honest, more painful, more authentic and convincing.

But this is a strange book, a difficult book. And probably a book that will stay with me for some time.

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Mental health is a difficult topic to write about. A dangerous topic. It would be very easy for it to trivialise – or even worse, to glamourise – mental illness or trauma. 

And there were times here where is was a little concerned that the novel may be going down that route – the love of a good man, a makeover and a haircut will cure mental illness – but it managed to avoid it, skewing off at the last moment. It is also a book full of humour and comedy which it balances with the trauma beautifully. So that, overall, this was a delightfully tender and uplifting novel. For example, when describing an incident from her limited social life, she recalls a party which 

had merely been a pretext, a ruse of sorts to provide her with the opportunity to attempt to sell us sex toys. It was a most unefifying spectacle: seventeen drunken women comparing the efficacy of a range of alarmingly large vibrators….

I’m familiar with the concept of bacchanalia and Dionysan revels, of course, but… sexual union between lovers should be a sacred, private thing. It should not be a topic for discussion with strangers over a display of edible underwear.

And, on her own sense of loneliness, Eleanor remarks that

Apart from Social Work and the utility companies, sometimes a representative from one church or another will call around to ask if I’ve welcomes Jesus into my life. They don’t tend to enjoy debating the concept of proselytizing, I’ve found, which is disappointing.

Eleanor Oliphant, our eponymous narrator, has been at the same job and followed the same routine, living in the same house, for nearly a decade. We quickly recognise touches of OCD and perhaps ASD in her behaviour, her routines, her wide vocabulary deployed without regard for context. Touches, perhaps of The Rosie Project. Before many pages, however, we realise that Eleanor is scarred both physically and emotionally and her background containing more trauma than any character deserves.

We pick her story up as two incidents affect her life: she develops a crush on a singer in a local band; secondly, a colleague, Raymond, drags her across the road to tend to a pensioner who has fallen over.  Sammy’s accident and Raymond’s quiet and patient insistence – or insistent patience? – disrupt the regime and introduce Eleanor to an increasingly widening circle of acquaintances.

As well as providing her with a range of opportunities to describe her backstory to other characters and, therefore, to us the reader.

The involvement in Sammy’s family was the least convincing part of the story for me: I’ve called ambulances for people in the past And never gone on to visit them or attend their or their family’s parties. Perhaps that says more about me and social adequacy than anything else! But it provides the narrative momentum.

Eleanor herself is immensely engaging without ever being terribly likeable, the reader empathises with her without really liking her for the main part. She is a difficult woman, a difficult character, but a deeply damaged one for whom the reader roots throughout. 

And the issue of mental health wasn’t trivialised and no quick fixes were offered: the revelations when they came generally formed part of a journey towards recovery and no simple answer was offered. Not even the truth. Perhaps especially not the truth.

This was not my usual reading fare but i did thoroughly enjoy it and – more – was moved deeply by it. 

A great read.

If you enjoyed the following, you may enjoy this:

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 It’s a funny thing about series. What is original and unique can become familiar and even – dare I say it? – stale as a series goes on. They become perhaps over-thought or overworked like a piece of dough that’s had the life kneaded out of it.

I wonder whether that’s what has happened with this book.

I have thoroughly enjoyed Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant series up to this point. The genii loci of the rivers of London created a mythic and original take on London; the Faceless Man was a formidably distant and shadowy nemesis; Nightingale was enigmatic; Grant himself was engaging and a pleasant narrative voice. Foxglove Summer, which bravely took Grant out of London, worked brilliantly by keeping a freshness which the return to London in The Hanging Tree seemed to lose.  

I mean, don’t get me wrong. It’s a good book in that slightly niche fantasy detective genre. It was just a little familiar and tired.

In this book, Grant is called in to what appears to be a drug overdose which implicates one of Lady Tyburn’s daughters – Olivia Jane McAlliste-Thames – as the supplier of those drugs. A convoluted series of plot twists involving a lost Principia by Newton dealing with alchemy brings in the newly reconstructed Lesley May and the Faceless Man who is eventually in this book unmasked but who, as usual, escapes in the end.

As usual, there are a couple of nice set pieces; Nightingale again exudes the potential for massive power but is never seen doing it; there’s the usual credible police procedures. And it was all decent enough. But familiar. A little bit by-the-numbers.

The other thing that really irked me was that Peter Grant frequently did things with other people and always uses the “Beverley and me …” subject construction. Always. I think without exception. Maybe I’m getting old and I know it’s to create a voice but it irked.

I will still follow the series through to the end: I am that invested in the characters. But I hope there’s some more joy and life in the next one.

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Detective fiction is a funny thing. The moment of most conflict and drama generally takes place outside the narrative, often before detective has been called in. The narrative arc is pretty formulaic: scenes are inspected, witnesses interviewed, discrepancies explored. And the conclusion is pretty predicable: the culprit is identified and society made safe from him or her. And they can become self-parodic: the body count in the various villages around Midsomer and Cabot Cove and St Mary’s Mead; the stereotypes of the detectives – the lonely genius of Holmes and Morse, the cantankerous Inspector Frost, the rebellious Luthor; the implausibility of the amateur sleuth.

But they are beloved!

And I love them.

They are the form of writing where the relationship between the reader and writer is at it’s most active and mutual. It is a dance, a tango; it is a battle of wits; it is a running joke. The reader is constantly building his own narratives, reconstructing the clues presented to him, re-evaluating the interviews. We judge and weigh up both the characters and the writer: we know that the early obvious suspect is a red herring with another 300 pages to read or another hour to watch.

And this book is a hymn to these classic, golden age cozy novels and their modern television counterparts – perhaps unsurprisingly as Horowitz has written for Midsomer Murders, Foyle’s War and written two new “official” Holmes novels as well as taken on Bond.

The novel is, as they say, a book in two parts: the first half is a presented as the ninth Atticus Pünd novel by Alan Conway – echoes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot abound in Pünd: dapper, clever, gentlemanly, foreign and a consultant to various police forces in 1950s England; the second part is a contemporary investigation by editor Susan Ryeland into the death of Conway himself and a search for the missing final chapters of his book.

Ryeland as a narrator is herself steeped in detective fiction and the novel is a delightful homage to and pastiche of the cozy detective novel – eschewing the darker notes that have grown with the growth of “nordic noir”.

Whilst well crafted and engagingly written, it is not a deep portrayal of character: Susan as a character and narrator was a little two-dimensional and her relationship with Andreas was not terribly fleshed out; the characters within the Atticus Pund novel had no more depth. In both parts, the characters felt like little more than chesspieces moved around and into place by the writer.

And there did seem to be an awful lot of summarising and of recapping of the information given in the previous couple of hundred pages which, ironically, could have been edited out quite happily. And the opening chapters which methodically showed every main character’s reaction to the first death in Conway’s novel felt somewhat formulaic and by-the-numbers.

Horowitz played with a range of different voices in the novel: Conway’s narrative voice in the Pünd novels, his true voice and his somewhat pretentious derivative literary voice; we hear snippets and extracts from these and from his sister and a rival would-be writer. It did come across as a little smug in parts, a little too self-consciously clever. Did he name his author Alan Conway after the conman who impersonated Stanley Kubrick? Did he rely on plant names for his characters in the same way that Susanna Ryeland, working for Charles Clover, derided Conway for doing? Invented interviews between Horowitz and an author who doesn’t exist promoting a book that Horowitz wrote himself…

It’s a great, fun read and a cosy winter’s treat, like an open fire and mulled wine. But it’s no literary masterpiece.

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Once again, a deliciously striking cover for Margaret Atwood’s most recent novel, and the most recent entry into the Hogarth Shakespeare Project… and the first in the project that I’ve read.

Now, I have a confession to make before going much further: I’ve never really got Margaret Atwood. I’ve wanted to; I’ve tried to. I really have. The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, The Blind Assassin, The Heart Goes Last… I’ve found them all daunting and I’m not usually daunted by books. Maybe daunting isn’t the right work. I’ve just never got into them however hard I’ve tried.

But this one, I actually really loved!

A re-invention of The Tempest, Hag-Seed is set in Makeshiweg, Canada where Prospero is re-imagined as Felix, the director of a local theatre festival, usurped by the Machiavellian machinations of a deliciously corporate Tony, an act which similarly de-rails his plans for a production of The Tempest. And within that circularity is encapsulated a taste of the delightful self-referentiality of the novel: theatres and productions and prisons and revisions and re-versions of the play multiply dizzyingly. Felix seemed perpetually with one-foot in the play: even before the villainous firing, he had lost his wife and named his daughter Miranda.

And Miranda is the heart of this novel: unlike Prospero’s daughter, Felix lost his own child and conjures her up as a memory which elides into an hallucination and slips into ghostliness through the novel. Simultaneously present and absent. Desperately clung to by Felix. Student and teacher.

Despite the ridiculous over-the-top caricature which Felix can become

His Ariel, he’d decided, would be played by a transvestite on stilts who’d transform into a giant firefly at significant moments. His Caliban would be a scabby street person – black or maybe Native – and a paraplegic as well, pushing himself around the stage on an oversized skateboard.

Atwood truly creates empathy and real pain in his oh-too-real experience of his grief as a father. At times, it feels touched by Hamlet rather than just The Tempest.

Felix slinks into a self-imposed exile following his firing and spends twelve years following the evil Tony’s rise to government and slowly plotting his revenge, a revenge which requires the Fletcher Correctional Facility to achieve via a Shakespeare Literacy Programme in which the inmates perform a Shakespeare play each year. As Tony and his cronies circulate and plan to visit Fletcher, Felix uses The Tempest as a tool with which to exact his revenge in a dark and drug-fuelled finale.

Personally, I preferred the build-up and rehearsal to the actual performance of the play and the enactment of the revenge. I loved the way that the inmates who were Felix’s cast toned down the self-indulgent theatricality of his original ideas and added rap, cynicism, kitsch and machismo to his re-invented re-invention. The actress Anne-Marie – a feisty and cool kick-ass dancer who can hold her own in the prison – becomes his Miranda; his Miranda becomes his Ariel.

At heart, the novel is an achingly painful and beautiful farewell from a father to his memories of his daughter and an ownership of grief. The final farewell genuinely brought tears to the eyes.

Other entries to the Hogarth Shakespeare Project include Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time (The Winter’s Tale), Howard Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name (The Merchant of Venice) and Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl (The Taming of the Shrew). I look forward to picking these up and, when they’re released, Tracy Chevalier’s Othello, Gillian Flynn’s Hamlet, Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth and Edward St Aubyn’s King Lear to come.

 

 

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Some books need more of an exercise in imagination than others. A bigger suspension of disbelief.

An unborn narrator, for example, is one such.

And not just unborn in a metaphorical sense but literally foetal.

The narrator of McEwan’s most recent book – recently serialised on Radio 4 – is a third-trimester Hamlet, set in modern London, recounting his mother’s and uncle’s attempts to usurp his father. And once you’ve created such an unconventional narrator, I suppose it makes complete sense – once your reader has abandoned that much disbelief – to make him very articulate, learned and astute. McEwan tosses in the occasional nod to Radio 4 podcasts as an explanation for the narrator’s knowledge, but – to be honest – who needs it? It’s a talking foetus; why not an articulate one?

It is a particularly intriguing notion for me at the moment. However indulgently and self-consciously artificially written, the concept of a vivid and thoughtful interiority of the foetus drives home to me: my own three-year old is smart, clever and manipulative but, for reasons so far unknown, not talking. I am, perhaps, therefore, already conditioned to see and cherish the interior life of the silent. To let the silent child speak to me in her own way.

And it is more than just a writerly frolic and unnecessarily facetious twist. It does shine a light on Hamlet’s twisted and fluid relationship with his own mother Gertrude in Shakespeare’s play – or Trudy in McEwan’s novel – and it shifts that relationship to the centre of the action, and makes her a knowing co-conspirator with the dullard Claude. And their relationship is brilliantly serpentine and mutually destructive, leaving the reader never quite sure who is taking advantage of whom.

Of course, McEwan’s Hamlet – like many of McEwan’s characters and stories and novels such as On Chesil Beach and In Between The Sheets – looks at the coarseness of sexuality in the face… quite literally in this case:

Not everyone knows what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose. By this late stage, they should be refraining on my behalf. Courtesy, if not clinical judgement, demands it. I close my eyes, I grit my gums, I brace myself against the uterine walls…. Wall of Death! On each occasion, on every piston stroke, I dread that he’ll break through and shaft my soft-boned skull and seed my thoughts with his essence….

Here I am, in the front stalls, awkwardly seated upside down. This is a minimal production, bleakly modern, a two-hander. The lights are full on and here comes Claude. It’s himself, not my mother, he intends to undress. He neatly folds his clothes across a chair. His nakedness is as unstartling as an accountant’s suit…. And my mother? On the bed, between the sheets, partly dressed, wholly attentive, with ready hums and sympathetic nods. Known only to me, under the bedclothes, a forefinger curls over her modest clitoral snood and rests a half-inch inside her. This finger she gently rocks as she conceded everything and offers up her soul.

Like those other novels, this coarseness is both repulsive and hilarious and poignant all at the same time. Deeply unsettling and thoroughly engaging at the same time.

The novel works on a range of levels: it is an intriguing thriller as well as an exploration of the death of love as well as a reimagining of Shakespeare.

And I enjoyed it immensely.

You know when you hope you got a book series wrong? Other people are telling you it’s great but you just don’t get it? You end up offering excuses for the writer: maybe I wasn’t in the right frame of mind; maybe  I was too tired; maybe I read it too quickly.

Sometimes, it is genuinely that other people are wrong.

J. K. Rowling does not write well for an adult audience.

Let’s be fair, this isn’t a car crash of a novel – note the pun; I worked hard on that one else! – it’s serviceable in a pedestrian way. It whiles away a rainy weekend. In the same way that Dan Brown does. And that’s okay.

Let’s turn to the plot. A writer goes missing and Cormoran Strike is hired to locate him; once located, he is discovered dead in a particularly gruesome way that echoes the ending of his unpublished book. The list of those who had access to the book becomes the list of suspects, and it is made up entirely of two-dimensional caricatures. The chain smoking agent, Elisabeth Tassel, who seemed to owe a huge debt to Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada; the obnoxious literary rival, Michael Fancourt; the pretentious publisher, Daniel Chard; Jerry Waldegrave, the alcoholic limp editor who permitted practically anyone else to have unfettered access to the safe in which the manuscript was locked; the self-published mistress and her transgender friend, Kathryn and Pippa. 

Each one is equally unlikeable and unlikely as a suspect; each had opportunity; each has motive; no motive is any less credible than any other.

And just like in Cuckoo’s Calling, about two thirds of the way through the novel, Cormoran Strike deduces the killer and spends the rest of his time smugly not telling anyone. And, to be frank, I didn’t care. Not a jot.

Strike was a loner in the first novel and this one widens his social circle a little: in addition to Robin Ellacott, we suddenly have a socialite half-brother, a shark-diving friend and a taxi driver joining Team Cormoran. And that’s all lovely… but all terribly convenient and again those characters are two-dimensional plot devices.

And Strike is – for wont of a better word – a bastard. Yes, I know that it’s not untraditional to try to create sympathy for characters with flaws, that flaws can in fact create sympathy. But Strike is a bastard. Not just is he irritatingl smug, he is a user of women. His relationship with his ex-fiancee is toxic; his treatment of Nina in the novel is atrocious. Which makes the clumsy and blunt attempt to create sexual tension between him and Robin deeply unattractive. In fact, Robin is caught essentially between  two abusive men: her fiance Matthew Cunliffe is just as bad and controlling. 

In fact, that may be the most interesting thing about the novel – albeit one which was done on The Archers recently: the toxicity of abuse within apparently “normal” middle-class relationships.

Susan Hill is, without doubt, a fantastic writer.

The Woman In Black is an exquisitely crafted horror; Strange Meeting is exceptional. so I am persevering with these detective novels hoping for … well something.

But I’ve not found it yet.

I really don’t know what it is that’s missing but something is.

The plots are decent enough: this time, the increasingly dangerous town of Lafferton is host to a serial killer gunman. It is terribly easy to mock, but the body count in Lafferton must be on a par with Midsomer or Cabot Cove! This gunman is on top of the serial killer surgeon from book one, Various Haunts of Men, and the paedophile murderer who passed through in books two and three. In fact, the plot felt very familiar and almost a rehash of the first book.

We also continue with the various traumas of the Serrailler family: having lost his love interest and then his disabled sister and then his mother in previous books, Simon Serrailler’s sister, Kat, faces the prospect of her husband being diagnosed with brain cancer in this one. At this rate, there won’t be many Serraillers left in a couple of books’ time! And is there a part of me that thinks that is lazy writing? Just a touch lazy? Not sure where to go with this plot; I’ll give someone cancer or kill off a loved one.

I do like the wider community and returning cast of minor characters. Hill does create a sense of community reacting to the murders with fear, indifference or shock. We were introduced to Helen Creedy and her attempts to start a new relationship and then balance that with her teenage children; an obvious parallel to Simon Serrailer’s difficulty in accepting his widower father’s new relationship with Judith Connolly. Andy Gunton, the reformed car thief, made a cameo return here, as did Karin McCafferty. Karin, who also had cancer which alternative medicine appeared to have cured previously, returns in order to die. And I didn’t like the way Hill dealt with that death: it seemed unnecessarily cruel to turn Karin into an acerbic, bitter and twisted caricature. I’ve read reviews that disliked her story arc because it was thought to promote an anti-traditional medicine message but her death pushed the seesaw too far the other way for me. However, in terms of the narrative, it did its job: it brought Jane Fitzroy back to Lafferton as a potential love interest.

And I think all these spare characters and community – whilst providing some red herrings for the murders – give the books the feel of this soap opera rather than a crime novel. I mean, it’s a balance of course – and having written a police procedural, I’ve included similar personal elements to humanise the detective – but I  feel that Hill hasn’t trod the line quite carefully enough. To be honest, I’d hoped Serrailler would have moved out of Lafferton so he couldn’t constantly pop to his sister’s! He’d been promoted and given a role in a Special Incident Flying Taskforce – which is a clumsy title in order to give the acronym SIFT – between the end of the previous novel, The Risk Of Darkness, and the start of this one. Couldn’t you have slipped in a SIFT case between these two, Ms Hill?

The other thing that really irked was that everything seemed to be conveyed in dialogue which felt a little stilted – and repeated at regular intervals – or in plodding exposition. With these novels, I don’t feel that Hill is following the show-don’t-tell truism. Now, I’m not a stickler for thinking that there is any such thing as a writing rule, but this did feel very pedestrian.

So, overall, not a bad book at all – not bad enough to put me off the rest of the series, unlike The Silkworm, a review of which is coming – but also nothing in it that sparkles from a writer who I know can sparkle.

These are not worth separate blog posts: same basic book written in the same basic style about the same basic themes. 

Which sounds terribly dismissive but shouldn’t: as a self-confessed language geek who’s alert to the absurdity and beauty of our mongrel mother tongue, these books were a delightful treat.and a little like talking to myself or being a student in my own class. If that is the case, they’re lucky students!

The Etymologicon – as you might expect – cherry picks words with interesting etymologies, generally as a result of English’s tendency to beg, borrow, steal words from other languages, and then invent, twist and warp original meanings through metaphor, misunderstandings and imaginative leaps.

Short bite-sized chapters link one word to the next as we explore farts, peters and petards; rolling stones and guns; salt and soldiering; Nazis and Big Bangs and little feisty dogs.

It is a coffee table book, to dip into and out of, to turn to a (possibly bemused, patient or disgruntled) friend and say “Oh, did you know…?”

The written equivalent of watching an episode of QI. In fact, I have a feeling some of the tidbits in the book were familiar, possibly because they had been covered in QI!

The Elements of Eloquence is really the same thing, applied to rhetoric and a range of rhetorical devices. In fact, very many of them are the techniques I use and teach regularly. Generally without the Greek names attached!
As a writer, I was pleased by  opening anecdote which recounted how Forsyth turned round his writer wife to ask her what would have helped her in the style guides she’d read, only to hear the reply that she’d never read any. Writers read books, not guides. Which isn’t to say that the techniques covered aren’t valid, useful or real. But, steeped in writing, you feel them rather than learn them. 

Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy learning them and seeing the examples that Forsyth has dredged from literature. I’m not sure I have the capacity to turn the perfect phrase yet, though!

Did I learn anything from these books? Yes, although not of a huge practical applicability.

Did I enjoy the witty and erudite and sometimes scatological style? Yes.

Fun, smart and witty. What’s not to love.

the vegetarian

This is a very difficult book to review, to consider, to – for wont of a better analogy – digest.

It is also a book which I think will haunt and follow me. And, Heaven forfend, make me think. What an appalling concept!

The plot, such as it is, is devastatingly simple: Kim Yeong-hye is living a quiet, undemanding, unrewarding life in a fairly affluent area of Seoul until she decides to become vegetarian. That decision, simple and implacable, is also utterly inexplicable and has massive repercussions on the rest of Yeong-hye’s family: her husband, Mr. Cheong, her brother-in-law and her sister, In-Hye, in particular. The reason for her decision? That she had had a dream.

The decision, however, and Yeong-hye’s journey are far deeper than that: the vegetarianism marks the start of Yeong-hye’s gradual withdrawal from the world as she abandons sex, clothing, family and even speech. She is utterly inscrutible to the reader, which jars with the novel being almost eponymous and named for her: the first part of the novel is narrated by Mr. Cheong and the second and third parts are in the third-person but very much from the point of view of the brother-in-law and of In-Hye. Cheong-Hye speaks to us as little as she does to her family, becoming enigmatic and evocative as a character as a result. The closest we get to her voice are the italicised and stylised fragments of dreams which read like a vivid prose poetry: brutal and visceral and fractured.

Dreams of murder.

Murderer or murdered… hazy distinctions, boundaries wearing thin. Familiarity bleeds into strangeness, certainty becomes impossible. Only the violence is vivid enough to stick. A sound, the elasticity of the instant when the metal struck the victim’s head…. the shadow that crumpled and fell gleams cold in the darkness.

They come to me now more times than I can count. Dreams overlaid with dream, a palimpsest of horror. Violent acts perpetrated by night. A hazy feeling I can’t pin down…. but remembered as blood-chillingly definite.

The language – even in translation – is powerfully sensual: the foods presented to Cheong-Hye, the meats offered to tempt her from her vegetarianism and then ultimately forcefed to her by her abusive father, the peaches and fruits offered by her sister. All are lovingly described in the English translation. And, having won the Man Booker International Award, you can see why the prize is split between Han Kang and Deborah Smith, her translator. Some of the language is a little clumsy – especially the lack of names given and the heavy reliance on familial titles – but that struck me as a cultural feature rather than a linguistic lapse.

Or perhaps a stylistic choice to reflect Cheong-Hye’s distance from the family unit.

There is a yearning by all the point-of-view characters – except for Mr. Cheong – to be and to become something other than what they are, to escape in some ways. The supporting characters, characters like the mundane and unimaginative Mr Cheong, perceive Cheong-Hye to be perverse and contrary and needing discipline; or as mentally ill, to view her as suicidal and self-destructive. Which is understandable: she does slice her wrists open when her father tries to force-feed her. But I’m not sure I do. The need to alienate her, to classify and categorise her behaviour and to control it is such a superficial reaction. The word that comes to my mind is sublimation, the desire to be transformed, converted and different. And possibly better and free. The flowering of symbols in the novel – trees, flowers and birds – ah, the wonderful and beautiful sensuous descriptions of the flowers painted onto Cheong-Hye! – are all, for me, symbols of freedom and escape  and innocence.

What this book prompts in me is, really, the ultimate question: what is real? What is reality? Are we limited to the mundane, traditional lives that Mr. Cheong has – how awful would that be? – or is there something else out there? Are Cheong-Hye’s dreams or her brother-in-law’s videos or her sister’s visions any less real or true than the world?

And, of course, as a novel, is the world of that novel any less real than the world in which I am tapping at my keyboard right now?

Yes, this book will be a haunting one which will continue to inhabit me. Much in the same way as many of the Man Booker prizes will.

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Han Kang

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Deborah Smith