20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Han Kang, Portobello Books, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, South Korea, TBR40

‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang

Fiction – paperback; Portobello Books; 183 pages; 2015. Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith.

Quite frankly, Han Kang’s debut novel, The Vegetarian — which I read for Women in Translation Month is a bonkers story.

The premise goes something like this: a married woman becomes a vegetarian in meat-loving South Korea after she keeps having a freakish dream involving lots of blood. Her family reacts angrily to her decision. At a dinner party, her father tries to ram a piece of meat down her throat. She responds by picking up a fruit knife and slashing her wrist. She goes to the hospital. Later, when she’s discharged, her marriage begins to fall apart. Meanwhile, her brother-in-law, an unsuccessful video artist, develops an unhealthy interest in her body, which is slowly wasting away, and paints flowers all over her naked form. They have sex, get caught by her sister, and then she ends up in a psychiatric ward, where she’s diagnosed with schizophrenia and anorexia, before admitting she really just wants to morph into a tree.

Yes, I told you it was bonkers.

An unsettling metamorphosis

Structured in three parts, it follows Yeong-hye’s metamorphosis from dutiful wife (her husband is arrogant, sexist and sexually abusive) to subversive vegetarian in pursuit of a more “plant-like” existence. We never hear from her directly, because her tale is told from the perspectives of those closest to her: her husband (in part one), her brother-in-law (part two) and her sister (part three).

As the narrative inches forward it becomes increasingly more unsettling and unhinged. Part one is particularly confronting (Yeong-hye’s husband rapes her and treats her abysmally), while part two borders on the pornographic. Part three is a bit more even-keeled, but even so, there are vivid descriptions of unpleasant experiences and medical procedures in a psychiatric facility that are unnerving.

And all this is rendered in cool, detached prose, with an occasional nod to poetic lyricism.

Critically acclaimed

When The Vegetarian was published in 2015 it was greeted with much enthusiastic praise and it won the International Man Booker Prize the following year, but at the risk of sounding churlish, I don’t quite understand the fuss.

It’s certainly original and even though it’s from South Korea, it has that languid, haunting quality that I normally associate with the best fiction from Japan. Similarly, it addresses themes of alienation, misogyny and a refusal to conform to societal conventions, but I found it difficult to engage with any of the characters and the storyline just didn’t hold my interest. Every time I put this book down, I really did not want to pick it up again.

And while I understand the book is saying a lot about the rigid constrictions of South Korean society, about sexual frustration and desire, and the ways in which the female body is used and abused, The Vegetarian — for all its intelligence, ideas and confrontation of taboos — really wasn’t for me.

Kate from Booksaremyfavouriteandbest didn’t much like it either.

This is my 8th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 27th for #TBR40. It has been in my TBR since 2015, having received it unsolicited from the publisher for potential review prior to its official release.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Japan, Portobello Books, Publisher, Sayaka Murata, Setting

‘Convenience Store Woman’ by Sayaka Murata

Convenience Store Woman

Fiction – paperback; Portobello Books; 163 pages; 2018. Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori

If someone derives satisfaction from their job, if they are highly motivated to do it well, does it matter if that job offers no prospect of promotion?

Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman poses this question in an oblique way. It also asks what is normal? And challenges many assumptions about how people choose to live their lives.

Narrated by 38-year-old Keiko, it tells the story of a single woman who has worked at the same convenience store since it first opened 18 years ago.

But while Keiko is happy in her role — she’s dedicated, efficient and diligent, always putting the store before herself, with no social life of which to speak  — her family are worried about her lack of ambition. They also fret that she’s never had a boyfriend and is unlikely to get married.

“Well, how are you?” my mother went on. “You spend all day on your feet, Keiko. It must be tiring. Um, how have things been lately? What’s new?”
Hearing her pry like this, I got the feeling that somehow she was still hoping for some kind of new development in my life. She was probably a bit tired of how I hadn’t progressed in eighteen years.

Eventually Keiko finds a radical solution to her family’s concerns and asks an ex-coworker to move in with her under the pretence he is her new boyfriend. While it gets her married sister off her back, it poses a whole new set of problems.

Odd one out

Written in a deadpan style, free from adjectives and full of quirky observations, mainly about human behaviour and societal expectations, Convenience Store Woman is a quick, witty and quietly profound read about what it is to be different and a little at odds with the rest of the world.

On the surface it feels absurd, slightly unnatural, but underneath it has a very human heart. I liked it a lot and was charmed by Keiko’s steadfast determination to do her own thing.

I’m not the only one who enjoyed this novella: Tony, from Tony’s Book World, has reviewed it favourably, too.

Austria, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Germany, historical fiction, Jenny Erpenbeck, literary fiction, Portobello Books, Publisher, Setting

‘The End of Days’ by Jenny Erpenbeck


Fiction – paperback; Portobello Books; 280 pages; 2014. Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.

Every November bloggers Caroline and Lizzy host German Literature Month, which is a good excuse to dig out those German language books languishing in my TBR. This year, however, I decided to treat myself to a new novel, which is how I came to buy Jenny Erpenbeck’s award-winning and critically acclaimed The End of Days at Waterstone’s late last month.

One woman’s life

The novel, which is broken up into five parts, tells the story of one woman’s life from cradle to grave. But it does not follow the normal narrative conventions, for at the end of each part cruel fate steps in and the protagonist dies.

But then the author plays with the idea of “what if?” and the next section of the book explores what might have happened if the (unnamed) woman had continued to live.

All this is played out against the backdrop of Europe’s turbulent 20th century history, including anti-Semitism, the rise of the Third Reich, and Communism.

It’s a neat way to explore how chance and choice and the little decisions we make every day can have a big  impact on our lives, and begs the question, is that what happens with world history, too?

An uneven narrative

Admittedly, reading this book was an uneven experience for me. The first two parts were some of the most compelling — and moving — literary fiction I’ve ever read. Who could not be intrigued by the idea of a baby dying in her cradle, aged just eight months, and then seeing the outfall on her parents — a Gentile father, who flees to America to escape the pain of his loss, and a Jewish mother, who falls apart emotionally and accidentally falls into prostitution to support herself?

The second part, which explores what would happen if the baby had  survived (because the parents had rubbed a handful of snow on her chest to bring her back from the brink of death), follows the now 17-year-old girl being uprooted from her home in Eastern Europe and settling in Vienna, where it is hoped she will lead a better life. But it’s 1919 and food, fuel wood — and hope — is in short supply. There is increasing, yet unspoken, pressure on her to sell herself in order to sustain her family, but instead she enters into a suicide pact with a fellow student.

The third part charts a new variation of the young woman’s life had that pact failed, but this is where my interest in the novel began to wane. I’m not sure if that’s because I’d got used to the “trick” of the story, or whether it was because the prose style suddenly became dry and detached, a mirror perhaps of the period of Communist history in which it was set.

I won’t elaborate on the final two parts of the story, but I found the narrative recaptured my attention once again, and I was left feeling slightly shattered by the time I’d reached the final page.

Power, passion and philosophy

The End of Days is a relatively short novel, but it’s a powerful, passionate and philosophical one. The prose is rich and evocative, and the story so filled with ideas, concepts and political, socio-economic and cultural themes that it would take an age to unpack them all. But, in my opinion, the narrative power, so strong in the first 115 pages, isn’t sustained, weakening the overall effect.

Not that my opinion really matters: this book was described as a “work of genius” when it won the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction prize earlier this year.

For other takes on this novel, please do read the review on Lizzy’s Literary Life and the one on JacquiWine’s Journal

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Hiromi Kawakami, Japan, literary fiction, Portobello Books

‘Strange Weather in Tokyo’ by Hiromi Kawakami


Fiction – paperback; Portobello Books; 192 pages; 2013. Translated from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Hiromi Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo (titled The Briefcase in the US, where it was published in 2012) is a bittersweet love story between a 30-something woman and an older man, which was shortlisted for the Man Asian Prize in 2012 and has just been longlisted for the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Strange romance

But this is no typical romance: Tsukiko, an office worker, spends much of her spare time drinking beer and saké in a local bar, which is where she notices a man, about 30 years her senior, who used to be her teacher at school, drinking alone. The pair strike up a conversation and, through a series of coincidences, keep meeting at the bar, where they sit next to each other, talk, eat and drink, often into the small hours.

There is no formal arrangement between them — indeed, their tentative friendship appears, on the surface, to be nothing more than a passing acquaintance. Tsukiko doesn’t even know the man’s name, and refers to him only as “Sensei” (a Japanese word, which I believe means “person born before another”, though it can also mean “teacher”).

They never arrange to meet at the bar and can go for weeks at a time without seeing one another. But whenever they are at the bar at the same time, they share a drink and pass the evening chatting. They always leave separately and pay their bills separately.

Their relationship, which grows from friendship into love, unfolds as gently as the narrative, which is written in the stripped back, often elegiac, prose I’ve come to expect from Japanese fiction. Over the course of a few months, Tsukiko, who narrates the story in the first person, comes to realise that she is very fond of Sensei, mainly because she misses him when he’s not around. A fledgling romance with a man her own age also makes her realise that she would prefer to be in the company of the older, more considerate (and less demanding) Sensei.

Disconnected lives

As ever with Japanese fiction (or, at least, in my experience of having read just a handful of Japanese titles), one of the central themes is loneliness and alienation, of being cast adrift in a sea of similarly lonely people but lacking the ability (or the awareness) to make meaningful connections with other people.

When I was in Tokyo, I couldn’t help but feel that I was always alone, or occasionally in the company of Sensei. It seemed that the only living things in Tokyo were big like us. But of course, if I really paid attention, there were plenty of other living things surrounding me in the city as well. It was never just the two of us, Sensei and me. Even when we were at the bar, I tended to only take notice of Sensei. But Satoru [the barman] was always there, along with the usual crowd of familiar faces. And I never really acknowledged that any of them were alive in any way. I never gave any thought to the fact that they were leading the same kind of complicated life as I was.

There’s also a lot of food references in this novel — almost every page is littered with descriptions of Japanese cuisine, almost as if the food is a substitute for the sex that is missing from the lives of the two main characters. There is so much food in this novel that instead of becoming hungry, I found myself becoming irritated (I had similar problems with Shuichi Yoshida’s Villain, which is also filled with endless descriptions of unfamiliar Japanese dishes).

That said, it would be churlish of me to nit-pick, because, on the whole, Strange Weather in Tokyo is an extraordinary novella about the value of, and deep human need for, companionship. It is gentle, wise and written in such an hypnotic style it casts a spell upon the reader as it draws you in to the dark world of Tokyo bars and the unlikely friendships it produces. It is deeply haunting and strangely moving.


The photograph, Today’s Levitation, is by Natsumi Hayashi and spans both the front and back cover of the book. Visit the photographer’s website to see more levitation photographs.