Monday, 27 June 2016

"Eternal truths are ultimately invisible, and you won't find them in material things or natural phenomena, or even in human emotions"

Off the back of Han Kang's brilliant and unique The Vegetarianwanted to dip back into the work of South East Asian women writers and came across this novella from Yoko Ogawa. At only 173 pages this is a wonderfully concise slice of Japanese fiction translated into English by Stephen Snyder who has previously translated works for both Ogawa, Natsuo Kirino and Ryu Murakami.

Checking in to Hotel Iris is disturbing in itself. The mouldy and damp hotel crumbles in a forgotten sea-side resort somewhere in Japan managed by a cruel matriarch with her young daughter Mari forced to work on the reception. Out of season the hotel attracts unlikely guests such as a blind pensioner who is switched from a room with a sea view to one without on arrival. 

Mari is essentially trapped in a world entirely controlled by her mother until one day there is a ruckus in the hotel when a prostitute bursts from one of the bedrooms accusing a elderly guest of being violent towards her. Despite her mothers clear disgust Mari is drawn to the elderly man and begins to chat with him days later in the market.

The translator, as he is referred to, lives in an isolated house on a nearby island where he translates books into Russian. The attraction here to Mari is clear, over the water lies another world filled with everything that is missing from the Hotel Iris. 

As Mari gets to know the translator their relationship grows and once Mari enters his world she is subjected to a brutal attack. The incident leaves Mari questioning everything but she continues to see the Translator with a bizarre coming of age fascination. Like The Vegetarian, these passages are hard to read but strangely addictive.

There is no doubt that this book will speak to each reader in a unique way. For me Ogawa's story is about how tough and complicated the world outside can be. The chapter including the dinner party with the Translator's nephew I think beautifully captures the experience of reading the novel; unnerving and unforgettable.

I read this novel in paperback in June 2016 in part on the Southbank of the Thames.

Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa, published by Vintage, 173 pages

"Nine minutes to five. Ozone and sea sparkle and carnival licence. This is how it begins"

The Pier Falls is a new short story collection from Mark Haddon. Having already mastered the long form novel with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, amongst others, this is the first test of Haddon's skills with the tricky short story format.

The book itself contains a number of shorts with no discernible thematic or narrative link as such but each story demonstrates the limitless imagination of a writer who transports us from the everyday to the mythical and the extraordinary with equal skill. For the purpose of this review I'll focus on the first story The Pier Falls.

The Pier Falls presents a classic diorama of the traditional British seaside holiday; fish and chips, striped deck chairs and screeching sea gulls; you can almost taste the pink candy floss. This instantly recognisable backdrop is steeped in nostalgia and longing for a simpler time. Reading the story on the Harbour Arm in Margate I looked back at the town and saw the bleached out orange and sun-burnt red colours exactly as they are shown on the vintage deck chair cover of the novel. 

As the story develops its like a seaside View-Master reel; each click reveals more in vivid day-glo 3D. The perfect summer day at the seaside turns into tragedy as the very foundations of the crowded pier begin to crumble. Bolts fly as metal supports tumble into the sea and shards of wood separate screaming families. Haddon doesn't hold back in descriptions of adults and children falling from the pier into the water. The death count builds quickly yet the narrative continues at pace with little respite. Haddon knows exactly how to create heart stopping tension in only a few sentences, you'll be literally holding your breath.

For me The Pier Falls is an allegory not so much for the end of the British holiday but for the end of nostalgia for the past. Its a great read and a monumental introduction to the other stories in the collection. Read them once then start over again for maximum enjoyment.

I bought this particular book in hardback largely due to the individual illustrations that accompany each story. Good on Mark Haddon for making these brilliant line drawings and for including them specifically in this book shop only edition. 

I read this novel in hardback in June 2016 in part in Margate.

The Pier Falls by Mark Haddon, published by Jonathan Cape, 336 pages

Sunday, 19 June 2016

"D-E-L-U-S-I-O-N-A-L. Eleven points plus fifty point bonus"

Epiphany Jones is the debut novel from American journalist and novelist Michael Grothaus. Whilst the book will no doubt be shelved under 'Crime thrillers' in bookshops Epiphany Jones in truth is a unique genre blurring novel that cleverly weaves together a criminal investigation, wildly dark humour and psychologically driven misadventure.  The novel holds no punches; sex trafficking, the seedy Hollywood underworld, art theft, psychotic hallucinations and kidnapping this book has it all, but is there any sense behind Epiphany Jones?

Our protagonist is Jerry, a guy struggling to come to terms with a traumatic past, who is suspected of stealing a priceless Van Gogh painting from the museum in which he works as a picture restorer. Forced underground he meets a mysterious woman, Epiphany Jones, who is utterly beguiling to the loner and online porn addicted Jerry.  

The couple end up on the run to Mexico and then across the Atlantic to Portugal before landing at the Cannes film festival. The plot is fast paced and packed full of episodes that develop the unlikely relationship between Jerry and Epiphany who believes the voices she hears in her head are from God himself. With Jerry fighting his own deep bouts of depression and hallucinations you'd be forgiven for wondering where the comedy lies yet in amongst this challenging set of circumstances Grothaus finds deeply dark and welcome humour. 

Michael Grothaus's talent is creating a world populated by initially unlikable characters that end up being completely readable. At times I thought of Douglas Coupland in books like Worst. Person. Ever. Likewise the backdrop to the story which exposes the dark underbelly of Hollywood is reminiscent of Bret Easton Ellis's work in Glamorama and Imperial Bedrooms; explicit, raw and unnerving.

There's is no doubt that this novel is memorable and Grothaus absolutely delivers a new voice in a crowded genre but the trouble I have with Epiphany Jones is that, whilst the characters are well drawn and believable, I found it pretty difficult to connect emotionally. Despite this, there is a lot, and I mean a lot, going on in this story which keeps you guessing right to the end.

For me the real genius in this novel is the bringing together of unconventional characters in a narrative around mental health issues and serious crime.   

I read this novel in paperback in June 2016 in mostly at home in Thame, Oxfordshire.

Epiphany Jones by Michael Grothaus, published by Orenda Books, 340 pages

Saturday, 11 June 2016

"I have no roots, he thought. I'm not connected to anything"

after the quake is a collection of short stories by Haruki Murakami which all deal in some way with the aftermath of the devastating Great Hanshin earthquake which hit the Japanese port of Kobe on January 17 1995. Each story is set within a month of the earthquake at a time when the entire country was reflecting on the huge loss of life and livlihood including Murakami's own parents who lost their home in the disaster.

There are 2 standout short stories within this collection, Super-Frog Saves Tokyo and Honey Pie, which both demonstrate a different Murakami trope; firstly the whimsical and supernatural and secondly the theme of the lonely adult.  

In Super-Frog Saves Tokyo young bachelor Mr Katagiri returns home from work to find a giant and highly articulate frog waiting for him. Frog explains to the unassuming Mr Katagiri that his help is needed to battle a giant worm who is set to unleash a second earthquake, this time on Tokyo itself. In this story Murakami typically makes overt references to other literature, the opening scene is both Kafka and Manga-esque in itself, and other writers such as Hemingway and Tolstoy who are both mentioned by Frog to convince Mr Katagiri that it is his obligation to help in the battle with Worm. Mr Katagiri is the 'everyman' jolted out of his everyday routine and forced to face a life changing challenge. There is a sense here of Murakami himself exploring his own role in repairing the battered Japanese psyche.

In Honey Pie (another story named after a Beatles song following Norwegian Wood) Murakami writes about a college love triangle and a young girl haunted at night by The Earthquake Man. Murakami's skill as a writer of short stories is evident throughout Honey Pie which includes a story within a story, which protagonist Junpei reads to the young girl, aswell as a flashback to college life which sets up the relationship between Junpei and his friends. This theme of the lonely and isolated adult coming to terms with decisions made in the past is classic Muramaki but in Honey Pie the overarching theme is one of hope. Building on the idea of Murakami questioning his own role as cultural guide in Super-Frog Saves Tokyo, in Honey Pie we find an example of Murakami offering solutions and faith.

The fact that there is so much to say about only two of the stories in this collection demonstrates just how good a read this is. Admittedly some context is required to fully appreciate the stories but this is exactly where reading digital books is an advantage. There are times when you'll want to delve into Wikipedia to drill down into information about Murakami himself and about the Kobe earthquake. Some readers find this distraction an anathema to reading literature but for me its a open door to more layers of meaning. 

I read this collection of short stories on Kindle in June 2016 in part at the St David's Hotel at Cardiff Bay.

after the quake by Haruki Murakami, published by Vintage Books, 162 pages

Thursday, 2 June 2016

#amreading 'The Vegetarian' by Han Kang
"The sight of her lying there utterly without resistance, yet armoured by the power of her own renunciation, was so intense as to bring tears to his own eyes"

This year's Man Booker International Prize winner is a truly memorable novel by South Korean writer Han Kang whose work has been translated into English, for the first time, by Deborah Smith.

I'm a huge fan of Japanese literature from the likes of Murakami, Banana Yoshimoto and  Hiromi Kawakami, but had never read a Korean novel before largely as they are much less frequently translated into English than Japanese titles. I approached the novel with expectations based on reading novels like The Lake and Strange Weather in Tokyo and inevitably wondered what sort of influence Japanese literature would have had on Korean writers but I was also intrigued by Deborah Smith who was making her debut as a translator.

The Vegetarian is a novel in three chapters, in fact they were each published as separate novellas originally. The story concerns the heroine Yeong-Hye an average and unremarkable house-wife who one day decides to empty the freezer of meat; declaring herself to be vegetarian.

The opening chapter is a first person narrative from the perspective of Yeong-Hye's husband, Mr Cheong, who struggles to deal with his wife's new resolve. How will he cope when his wife accompanies him to dinner with his boss? Desperate for help he invites Yeong-Hye's family to dinner to where her father violently forces his daughter to eat a piece of pork - this is visceral and unfaltering writing that is innately uneasy to read.

The second chapter concerns Yeong Hye's brother-in-law who becomes obsessed with Yeong-Hye's body once he discovers that she is concealing a distinctive birthmark - a Mongolian Spot. The final chapter is set several years in the future when Yeong-Hye has lost contact with her entire family apart from her sister In-Hye who visits Yeong-Hye in a psychiatric hospital.

This is a novel about a family in crisis born out of one member no longer being willing to conform to social and societal norms. Han Kang expertly structures the novel around the three long chapters that explore the voices around Yeong-Hye. Though the narrative is never hers, Yeong-Hye remains the focus of the novel throughout.

Each chapter features dream sequences which blur the everyday and ethereal and provide the reader with rich and dynamic prose. The fact that these sequences work so well in The Vegetarian is a huge credit to the work of Deborah Smith who achieves a translation that is wonderfully readable in English whilst at the same time profoundly different to English language novels.

Off the back of reading this novel I'm sure I won't be alone in seeking out more Korean fiction and certainly more from the Han Kang/Deborah Smith partnership.     

I read this novel on paperback in May 2016 in West Malling, Kent

The Vegetarian by Han Kang and translated by Deborah Smith, published by Portobello Books, 160 pages