6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Braised Pork’ to ‘Hotel Iris’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeThe first Saturday of the month means it is time to take part in Six Degrees of Separation, a meme hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest. In this meme, Kate suggests a starter book and the idea is to then create a chain of six more books, linking each one as you see fit.

I didn’t take part last month because August crept up on me unawares, but here is my effort for September. See if you can spot a theme!

This month the starting book is the last one read in August…I’m kind of cheating here because I’m starting with the last one I reviewed in August as I’m about 6 books behind. As ever, click the title to read my full review of each book…

‘Braised Pork’ by An Yu (2020)

In this intriguing novel, a young Chinese woman living in Beijing is widowed suddenly and begins a journey of self-discovery, which includes a trip to Tibet, a romance with a local bar owner and a rediscovery of her artistic side. The prose style is simple and hypnotic and the story blends folklore and mythic elements to create a rather enigmatic, sometimes perplexing, tale.

‘Beijing Coma’ by Ma Jian (2009)

Another novel set in Beijing, this 600-plus extravaganza is a powerful story that bears witness to the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. t is a deeply moving account of the student pro-democracy movement, culminating in the massacre in which thousands of Chinese citizens were killed. Unusually, it is told from the point of view of one of the students, Dai Wei, who is in a coma. As a concept, this shouldn’t work, but in Ma Jian’s hands, this wholly original approach is devastatingly effective. (The book is banned in China and the writer is living in exile in the UK.)

‘The Man from Beijing’ by Hanning Mankell (2011)

The obvious link here is in the title, but I’m also linking to it because it is about a massacre. It’s a stand-alone crime novel (ie. not part of Mankell’s famous Wallender detective series) that follows an investigation into Sweden’s biggest (fictional) mass murder in which 19 people are slaughtered overnight in a sleepy village in the middle of winter. It’s not a police procedural as such because the crime is investigated by a middle-aged judge who has been signed off from work and needs something to occupy her time. Structurally, the book has some issues — the story, for instance, jumps back to the mid-19th century just as the investigation is hotting up, which interrupts the page-turning quality of the tale — but it’s an intriguing look at modern-day China’s hidden influence on the world and Mankell is not shy about wearing his politics on his sleeve, so to speak.

‘The Aosowa Murders’ by Riku Ondo (2020)

Sorry about the dark turn, but here’s another novel that features a mass murder as its starting point. In this unconventional crime novel from Japan, the focal point is the death of 17 people who are deliberately poisoned at a family celebration. The prime suspect is the family’s blind daughter, the only family member spared death, but why would she want to kill her loved ones? The novel is not really a whodunnit or a whydunnit. Instead, it looks at the far-reaching impact of the crime on the lives of so many people, including the police investigators, and it’s written retrospectively using multiple voices and multiple time-frames with no neat solution or ending.

‘Newcomer’ by Keigo Higashino (2018) 

Conventional structure is thrown out the window in this Japanese crime novel, too. Higashino is my favourite Japanese crime writer but this one was a little disappointing. it is set in Tokyo and follows the police investigation into the death of a 40-year-old woman. Each phase of the investigation is told as if it’s a standalone short story. With each new story, or chapter, we learn something new about the case as the list of suspects grows longer and longer. Eventually, Detective Kyochiro Kaga, a sharp-minded, highly experienced policeman, reveals the identity of the culprit, but it takes a long time to get there!

‘Strange Weather in Tokyo’ by Hiromi Kawakami (2013)

Staying in Tokyo, but leaving the crime behind, this is a bittersweet tale about a 30-something woman who embarks on a relationship with an older man who was once her teacher at school. It’s an unconventional love story because the pair never make dates; they simply go to the same bar at around the same time, sit next to each other and spend the evening drinking and talking. Their relationship, which grows from friendship into love, unfolds as gently as the narrative, which is written in stripped-back, often elegiac, prose.

‘Hotel Iris’ by Yoko Ogawa (2011) 

Another story about a relationship between a younger woman and an older man, this novel takes a horrifying subject — a sexual deviant praying on an innocent girl — but writes about it beautifully. The prose is lush and hypnotic and the narrative is perfectly restrained, and yet it brims with tension. Will 17-year-old Mari be okay or will her boyfriend, who is 50 years her senior, turn out to be the next Ted Bundy?

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a tale about a young Chinese widower on the brink of a new life to the tale of a Japanese teenager playing with fire, via stories set in Beijing and Tokyo, most of them using unconventional structures to keep things interesting. 

Have you read any of these books? 

Please note that you can see all my other Six Degrees of Separation contributions here.

22 thoughts on “Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Braised Pork’ to ‘Hotel Iris’”

  1. How clever! You’ve unwittingly linked with the starter book for next month’s chain. What I take from your fascinating chain is the fact that you are far from the only reviewer drawing our attention to Japanese detective fiction, a genre I haven’t tried. But I will now. I feel most drawn to try the Kawakami however. Then continue the Japanese theme!

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    1. I’m a big fan of Japanese writing, both crime writing and lit fiction — there’s an aching melancholy to it, which makes me wonder what Japanese society is like (I’ve never been to Japan) because most of the books I have read seem to focus on the themes alienation and loneliness.

      I wasn’t aware of next month’s starter book… must go check it out!

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      1. Next month’s book is an uncomfortable, though quick read. Yes, I agree with you about the Japanese fiction I have read, … just need to start on those detective stories.

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  2. Japanese crime fiction seems to be enjoying some buzz at the moment. I’m more used to the enigmatic, atmospheric Japanese novels but am very curious about two of the author names yiu mention here – Higashino and O do. You say this was t your favourite Higashino so. Ow I’m curious which you would recommend?

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    1. I hadn’t realised Japanese crime fiction was having a moment; I’ve been reading it for years and years. You will find my reviews here: https://readingmattersblog.com/tag/japanese-crime-fiction/

      My favourite Higashino is The Devotion of Suspect X, which I reviewed more than a decade ago and which I still think about. It was done so well. I have seen the film adaption too, which is excellent, although the book is better https://readingmattersblog.com/2011/12/28/the-devotion-of-suspect-x-by-keigo-higashino/

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      1. I hadn’t really seen Japanese crime fiction mentioned much in the past but this year it just keeps coming up on my threads.

        I see that “Devotion” is the third in the series. Is it important to read the first two or are they self standing?

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  3. Can’t believe I don’t know any of these novels, even though I really like Asian, and particularly Japanese literature. More for me to explore. I love the sound of Strange weather in Tokyo, in particular.

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    1. Hope you get to read Strange Weather, Sue, it’s a bittersweet story. It was published under a different title in the US (The Briefcase); not sure what it was published under in Oz.

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