20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), BIPOC 2021, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Japan, Mieko Kawakami, Picador

‘Heaven’ by Mieko Kawakami

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 167 pages; 2021. Translated from the Japanese by Sam Brett and David Boyd. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Mieko Kawakami’s Heaven is a novella about the impact of bullying on a teenage boy and how his friendship with a girl suffering similar schoolyard abuse gives him the courage to keep on going.

It’s set in the early 1990s, before the advent of the internet, social media and smartphones (which would arguably make things worse or, at least, different), and presents a world that is both violent and nihilistic.

A secret alliance

Narrated by “Eyes”, a 14-year-old boy, who is ruthlessly bullied at school because he has a lazy eye, it charts his last tormented year at middle school before graduating to high school. His only friend is Kojima, a female classmate, who is dubbed “Hazmat” by the same bullies because she supposedly smells and has dirty hair.

Their friendship is a secret one because to admit their solidarity would only encourage the students who persecute them so shamelessly already. The pair communicate via notes and letters and meet in the stairwell when no one is looking. They even go on a train trip together, a journey that solidifies their alliance and helps them get to know each other outside of the classroom.

There’s not much of a plot. The storyline simply highlights how Eyes is treated by his fellow students and shows how he tries to rise above his situation by not fighting back, accepting their terrible treatment of him in silence and nursing his pain alone.

When he does build up the courage to confront one of his attackers, following a distressing scene in a school gymnasium (be warned, there are some violent scenes in this book – they’re not gratuitous, but they are confronting), he’s essentially gaslit into thinking he’s got it all wrong.

“You said we do it for no reason, right? I agree with that, but so what? What’s wrong with that? I mean, if you want us to leave you alone, you’re totally free to want that. But I’m totally free to ignore what you want. That’s where things don’t add up. You’re mad that the world doesn’t treat you like you want to be treated, right? Like, right now is a good example. You can walk up to me and say you want to talk, but that doesn’t mean I have to listen. Know what I mean?”
I replayed in my head what Momose had just said and looked at his hands.
“More than that, though,” he said. “I got to tell you. This whole thing about you looking the way you look. You make it sound like that’s why we act the way we do, but that’s got nothing to do with it.”

Eventually, even his friendship with Kojima begins to flounder when he realises that she’s not there to support him to escape the bullies but to merely comfort herself by the idea she’s not suffering alone.

Bullying behaviour

This Japanese novella, expertly translated by Sam Brett and David Boyd, is a good examination of bullying behaviour — why people do it, how they get away with it and the long-term serious repercussions on those who suffer it.

There’s an alarming absence of adult intervention, whether by parent or teacher, which is probably indicative of a problem that can go undetected for a long time if the perpetrators are careful and the victim is too scared to speak up.

Heaven is profound and disturbing, but it’s also melancholy, intimate and tender, and there’s something about the hypnotic prose style that gets under the skin and leaves a lasting impression.

And thankfully, despite all the violence and the terror, the story ends on a bittersweet, hopeful note…

This is my 8h book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I accepted this one for review because regular readers of this blog will know I am quite partial to Japanese fiction. I’d been quite keen to read Kawakami’s previous novel, ‘Breasts and Eggs’, now. This is also my 7th book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour this year.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Adam Thompson, Australia, Author, BIPOC 2021, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, short stories, University of Queensland Press

‘Born Into This’ by Adam Thompson

Fiction – paperback; UQP; 210 pages; 2021.

Born Into This is a collection of short stories by Adam Thompson, an emerging Aboriginal (Pakana) writer from Tasmania.

Identity, racism and Aboriginal heritage are key themes, with many of the stories focused on First Nations characters caught between two worlds. All provide a refreshing perspective on Australian life and the ways in which we navigate society and find (or don’t find) our place within it.

The loss and destruction of the natural world is another topic that features throughout.

But despite the sometimes heavy subject matter, the collection is not without humour and pathos. There is tenderness and gentleness, too, and above all, there’s big-heartedness. Reading it is a bit like going on an emotional roller coaster in which you experience everything from anger to sadness,  guilt and shame, often within the space of a single story.

Stories of our time

Of the 16 stories in the collection, Invasion Day not only packs a hard-hitting political punch, it could be seen as a microcosm of Australia’s current situation: two opposing sides (black and white) not able to reconcile their differences in order to move forward together. This evocative story focuses on a protest held in Hobart on Australia Day. There is much jeering and name-calling from the sidelines.

The crowd booed. Someone yelled out ‘Shame’. The footpath became a bottleneck as the police blocked us from walking on the highway. Up ahead, the dancers and the kids holding the large ‘Invasion Day’ banner started crossing, moving down towards Parliament House Lawns. The march had stretched out to almost a kilometre, and I was somewhere in the middle. The chanting had ceased as we walked across the highway, but as the lawns and the gathering crowd came into view, the loudspeakers sparked up again, and the progressing throng found their second wind.

It ends with a rousing, hopeful speech from ‘stiff-legged Jack’ — who tells the crowd “There is, indeed, hope for the future” — and then the unnamed narrator takes to the microphone, pulls out an Australian flag and does something drastic.

Another story, Kite, also set on Australia Day, takes on a more humorous note.

In this black comedy, a man flies a kite made for him by his young nephew. The centre pole of the kite sticks out further than other kites and is sharpened to a fine point to prevent the kite snapping when it hits the ground. The man goes to the beach to fly it, but other beach goers are angry at him, thinking he’s making a political point, for the kite is in the colours of the Aboriginal flag and this is Australia Day. He ignores them. He’s there to have fun, not protest.

But when the kite comes down at an incredible speed and the protruding tip kills a dog, it’s going to be hard not to associate his actions as an Aboriginal man deliberately spearing someone’s pet.

An affinity with nature

Several of the stories are set on the islands off the coast of Tasmania, where Thompson’s eye for detail brings the natural world to life. In these tales he skewers the idea that all Aboriginal people, particularly those who have grown up in cities and who have lost touch with cultural traditions, have a deep affinity with being on country.

In the opening story, The Old Tin Mine, for instance, the Aboriginal narrator is leading a survival camp for six teenage Aboriginal boys from the city, helping to get them back in touch with their heritage and the old “blackfella ways”. But he’s constantly being undermined by the white guide accompanying him who seems to know more about survival techniques and nature. To save his pride, the narrator is having to live up to a certain expectation, deemed by the colour of his skin, that he can’t quite fulfill — with disasterous consequences.

Many of Thompson’s tales also highlight the ignorance of white people who have no idea of the cultural significance of many aspects of Aboriginal life. In Honey, Nathan helps a white friend with his bee-keeping exploits, but is horrified to discover that he wants to market the honey under “the Aboriginal word for honey” because it will be a “good gimmick […], I reckon, ‘specially with the tourists”.

He’s later even more horrified, pained and appalled to discover that his friend, as a child, destroyed Aboriginal middens along the river by skimming the stones, including ancient stone tools, on the water. His uncle had told him that it was important to get rid of these — “bury ’em or throw ’em in the river” — in the mistaken belief that it would prevent Aboriginals from claiming land rights.

An extraordinarily good collection

I could go on and dissect every short story in Born Into This, but I won’t. This is an extraordinarily good collection, one that benefits from a close second reading (I have re-read the short stories named in this review, and they actually benefit from another reading).

There’s so much to discuss in them and I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to see things from the other side, as it were. It’s clear that the author isn’t doing this to be mean spirited or spiteful, but in a genuine attempt to show how things look through First Nation eyes, to open a discussion that will benefit us all, black and white.

This is my 1st book for Lisa’s #IndigLitWeek2021, which runs from July 4 to 11. It is also my 3rd book for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it from Dymocks in February shortly after publication because I had heard good things about it and I am keen to read (and support) work by First Nations writers. This is also my 6th book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour this year.

This review is featured by Twinkl in their blog about the latest must-read books. See more recommendations and get involved at Book Lovers’ Top Picks For Your 2021 TBR List.

Author, BIPOC 2021, Book review, dystopian, Fiction, Japan, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR 21, Vintage, Yoko Ogawa

‘The Memory Police’ by Yoko Ogawa

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 274 pages; 2020. Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder.

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa is a brilliant mix of The Diary of Anne Frank meets George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. There are echoes of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and it also shares similar themes with Richard Flanagan’s latest novel, The Living Sea of Waking Dreams, too.

And yet for all that, this is a wholly original dystopian novel like no other.

As Madeleine Thein writes in her review, published in the Guardian in 2019, it is a “rare work of patient and courageous vision” and one that “can be experienced as fable or allegory, warning and illumination”.

Written in deceptively simple yet hypnotic prose, there’s a dream-like quality to the text, yet the subject matter is quite nightmarish.

Isolated island life

Set on an island in a vaguely familiar dystopian future, residents are collectively forced to forget certain objects, including ribbons, roses, maps and calendars as if they never existed. This forgetting is enforced by a mysterious and draconian force called the Memory Police. Those who disobey, or who are unable to forget, are rounded up and “disappeared”.

The story is narrated by an unnamed writer who is working on a novel about a woman who takes typing lessons in a disused lighthouse. Excerpts of this novel (which are published within the novel) show the power of books and writing to preserve the past unless, of course, they are made to disappear, too.

The book’s editor, the kindly R, is one of those unfortunate people who can’t forget what he is supposed to forget and he’s running the risk of being forcefully made to disappear. The writer makes a bold decision to take him away from his pregnant wife and hide him in her house in a makeshift room hidden under the floorboards. She enlists one of her most trusted friends, an elderly man she’s known since childhood, to help her set up the room so it’s functional and soundproof, and together they smuggle R into hiding.

It’s an astonishing risk to take. For R, living in such cramped conditions, with no access to daylight and separated from his wife and child, there is little to occupy his time — except to edit the book.

It was better for him, too, to have work to do. The healthiest way of living in the secret room was to wake in the morning thinking about the things that had to be done during the day; then, at night before going to bed, to check that everything had been accomplished, whether satisfactorily or not. Moreover, the morning agenda needed to be as concrete as possible, and the tasks ideally involved some sort of reward, no matter how small. Finally, the day’s worked needed to tire him out in both body and spirit.

Jeopardy comes in many forms over the course of the novel. R’s hiding place is under constant threat of exposure, while a clandestine love affair increases the danger. Rare objects, including a harmonica, are discovered in the writer’s home and while she does not understand their use, it’s clear that just having them in her possession puts her in peril. Meanwhile, more and more objects are consigned to history by the Memory Police, including books and libraries, seemingly at random, creating chaos, confusion and instability.

Echoes of the past

First published in the author’s native Japan in 1994, The Memory Police was translated into English last year and was shortlisted for the 2020 International Booker Prize.

It’s a brilliant treatise on totalitarianism, loss and control, about the ways in which humans often obliterate all that is good in the world, and the resilience of ordinary people to survive against the odds. It can also be seen as an allegory on growing old and dying. Indeed, there’s a lot to unpick in this relatively short but powerful novel, which is told with grace and flair.

Reading this book, I couldn’t help but recognise elements of human history we would probably rather forget — the constant hunt for food reminiscent of the North Korean regime; the rounding up of people for being different has echoes of Nazi Germany; the constant rewriting of history is very Orwellian; even R’s new life in hiding could be seen as a bit like living in Covid-19 lockdown — so perhaps the book’s overriding message is the importance to remember bad things in order not to repeat them in the future.

I definitely want to read this one again. Expect to see this on my top 10 at the end of the year. Yes, it really is that good.

This is my 4th book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour over the next year, and it is my 5th book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I also read this as part of Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 14. You can find out more about the challenge, which runs from 1 January to 31 March 2021, here

Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Fuminori Nakamura, Japan, Publisher, Setting, Soho Books

‘The Kingdom: A Novel’ by Fuminori Nakamura

Fiction – paperback; Soho Crime; 202 pages; 2016. Translated from the Japanese by Kalau Almony.

The Kingdom: A Novel is typical Fuminori Nakamura fare. Morally dubious central character. Tick. The world of the criminal underclass. Tick. Shadowy goings-on. Tick. Themes of alienation and dislocation. Tick. Sexual violence. Tick.

But this dark mix of anger, excitement and paranoia isn’t enough to sustain what is essentially a fairly mediocre plotline. I came away from this novel thinking I’d wasted my time reading it, which is not what I normally feel when I read Nakamura. I’ve read four of his novels now, but this one — his tenth and supposedly a companion piece to his rather thrilling The Thief — was a major disappointment and left a horrible after taste.

Set in Tokyo, it tells the story of Yurika, a woman employed by a secret organisation to trap men in compromising situations so that they can be blackmailed. She does this by posing as a prostitute, getting the “target” alone, usually in a hotel room, then drugging them so she can take off their clothes and take incriminating photographs.

But when she’s approached by a rival organisation to get information on her boss, she begins to play the two sides off each other in a rather dangerous life-or-death game — with mixed results.

An unconvincing heroine

The Kingdom: A Novel is written in the first person from Yurika’s point of view. I found it difficult to accept her as a female character; her mindset, particularly her obsession with masochistic sex, felt too male. And while Nakamura tries to round her out by giving her a sympathetic back story — she grew up in an orphanage and as a young adult loses two people to whom she is closest, the pain of their loss conveyed via flashbacks — the details didn’t feel convincing to me.

There are some distasteful scenes in the book, too, including many references to (and depictions of) rape. In part, it reads like a misogynist’s sexual fantasy, which probably explains why I didn’t like it very much.

This is despite the fact I admire Nakamura’s prose style, free from adjectives and with every word carefully chosen to move the fast-paced plot ever closer to its conclusion. It’s full of recurring motifs — the moon, guns and glittering jewellery — and explores themes of weakness, obsession, religion and survival in an interesting way. But it lacks any light and is so full of sadistic characters it’s hard to recommend this book to anyone other than a hardened reader of Japanese noir.

This is my 2nd book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour over the next year. I also read this as part of Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 14. You can find out more about the challenge, which runs from 1 January to 31 March 2021, here

Author, BIPOC 2021, Book review, Fiction, India, literary fiction, Megha Majumdar, Publisher, Scribner, Setting, TBR 21

‘A Burning’ by Megha Majumdar

Fiction – paperback; Scribner; 304 pages; 2020.

This was my first book of 2021 and what a great start to a new year of reading it proved to be!

Megha Majumdar’s debut novel, A Burning, is the kind of literary fiction I really admire. It’s got great characters, a suspenseful plot and focuses on some of the key issues of our time — freedom of speech, social justice, social mobility and corruption — without being heavy-handed about it.

And it has an interesting structure that interleaves different points of view into a single multi-layered story.

UK Edition

The dangers of social media

Set in modern-day India, it tells the story of a young woman living in a slum who is trying to make something of herself as a sales clerk in a clothing store.

But when she expresses a provocative opinion on Facebook it lands her in trouble with the law. From one careless, throwaway line — “I wrote a dangerous thing, a thing nobody like me should ever think, let alone write” — Jivan is accused of helping to blow up a train, a terrorist act that she witnessed but had no part in organising.

And yet, thanks to the court of public opinion and a forced confession, she is arrested, charged and detained. Her lawyer, inadequate and inexperienced, is really in no position to help her.

But there are two people she knows who may be able to come to her rescue: PT Sir, her former gym teacher who has become swept up in right-wing politics and now makes his living being paid as a dubious witness in court cases he knows absolutely nothing about; and Lovely, a hijra (intersex) actress who learnt English from Jivan and  knows that the “explosives” Jivan was accused of carrying were actually books meant for her lessons.

Both characters, whose stories are told in alternate chapters (in gorgeously distinctive voices), are expected to come to Jivan’s defence, but to do so carries a serious risk, for it will call their own reputations into question. Meanwhile, they must dice with a media hungry for sensation, a public eager to condemn the terrorists and a succession of fame-seeking politicians looking to exploit the situation for their own benefit.

Compelling page-turner

A Burning is a propulsive, compelling story, easily read in a sitting or two. It has all the feel of a suspense novel and yet it doesn’t sacrifice detail (or literary merit, for want of a better description) in the pursuit of a page-turning read.

There are big issues here, not least the ways in which social media gives the false illusion that you can say what you want without repercussions. But it also shines a light on social justice in impoverished places where life is cheap, and how ambition and greed can cause collateral damage (and violence) to communities with no means to fight back.

Majumdar presents the justice system, the media and politics in the worst possible light. The setting may be India, but the Dickensian tale told here could apply almost anywhere in the Western world right now. It’s brilliant food for thought.

Lisa from ANZLitlovers has also reviewed it and so has Tony at Tony’s Book World.

This is my 1st book for #BIPOC2021, which is my plan to read more books by black, Indigenous and people of colour over the next year. It’s also my 1st book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021.