“The Vegetarian” by Han Kang – review

Before this review gets underway I should say that it does contain a few spoilers.  I always try really hard to write my reviews without them, but it was just too hard to even begin explaining this complex novel without giving something away!  If you don’t mind that, then read on…

So, how to explain the weirdness that is “The Vegetarian”?  It’s a book that I can’t compare to any other I’ve read, a unique journey into the un-probed recesses of the psyche that shocks, saddens, disturbs and bemuses in by turns.  It comprises three sections, almost like three acts of a play, each one of which is told from the point of view of a different character in the story (although not always in the first person).  As the acts unfold, new layers are added that force the reader to re-evaluate events that have gone before – the issue being that we were never sure how to interpret events to begin with, such is their strangeness and ambiguity.

The novel begins as Yeong-hye decides to become vegetarian.  This being Korea, such a decision is an almost unheard of break from social norms and is greeted with a mixture of disbelief, bewilderment and outrage by members of her family.  Most peculiar of all, though, is that her reason for suddenly shunning all meat is a dream, an explanation that sounds like lunacy to those around her.  The rationale behind her turn of mind never becomes completely clear to us either; intermittently throughout this first act we find ourselves in Yeong-hye’s head, but her voice is a stream of consciousness journey through sensations and visceral images, not explanations.  We see blood, animal skulls and flashes of ambiguous violence, all of which pass in an instant and leave us wondering: where have all these macabre mental images come from?  And how do they connect to this abrupt, mysterious vegetarianism?  There are no answers provided – yet.  But we do see real and shocking violence erupting in Yeong-hye’s present, real life; the poor woman’s treatment at the hands of those you would expect to care for her leaves us feeling incredibly uncomfortable.

Then suddenly, it’s on to part two.  At the time of reading I found it a bit of an unexpected, and somewhat unwelcome, jolt to move on to another character and a completely new part of the story before the questions of the first part had been answered; hang in there though, because when you’ve got to the end of the book and are able to look back on all three chapters together, the separate sections feel much more cohesive than they do while you’re actually reading them.  Whereas I came away with the impression that part one is all about supressed trauma, part two is about supressed desire – supressed temporarily that is!  This section focuses on Yeong-hye’s brother in law, who we came across fleetingly in the first chapter.  He’s an artist, and after his sister in law converts to vegetarianism he becomes more and more obsessed with her sexually, a fantasy that turns into a desire to use her in a piece of erotic performance art.  It’s just as strange and unsettling as the first episode, but in a very different way.  After the earlier drama, violence and mental collapse of the bullied, victimised vegetarian, when Yeong-hye appears in this chapter she is eerily passive.  No longer privy to her inner thoughts, it almost seems to the reader as if she doesn’t have any.  Whether she is genuinely numb, an empty shell drained of emotion by the trauma she’s suffered, or whether her exterior blankness is merely a product of how others (predominantly men) see her we do not know.  She could be a metaphor for the invisible woman who has been rendered meaningless by a male-dominated society, or she could simply be an isolated individual who has become a victim of her own mind.  Either way, the role she takes in the increasingly bizarre imagination of her brother in law is no less troubling than the abuse she endured before.

The final act is in many ways the most straightforward of them all, and it’s the one I felt most at ease reading.  The writing loses a lot of its earlier dreamlike quality ad becomes more storytelling in its style.  Yeong-hye is now in a psychiatric hospital, her sister in law In-hye is separated from her artist husband, and we finally start to find out what’s driven the troubled vegetarian from giving up meat to a state of near madness.  In-hye too, in between emotionally draining visits to her sister, is re-evaluating her own life and feelings.  Is it significant that it’s only now, when removed from the influence and dominance of men, that the two sisters are able to work towards achieving emotional peace?  It certainly seemed that way to me; I felt very much that the whole novel is about the control that society allows men to have over women, both explicitly and tacitly.  Yeong-hye ends the novel wanting to stop being human and to connect herself to the earth, living as a tree does – the ultimate extension of the vegetarianism that started the whole story.  It could be insanity, or it could be the ultimate means of gaining control in a life where others have constantly tried to take it away from her.

What the book is trying to say is a question that there is perhaps no need to answer.  The act of reading it in itself was an incredibly intense experience that I suspect will differ greatly between every individual who picks it up.  It’s no bad thing to be shaken out of your reading comfort zone every now and then, and this novel certainly achieved that for me.  Don’t read it for a realistic story with a satisfying conclusion, but do read it for an intellectual and emotional thrill-ride.  It’s different – and really quite remarkable.

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“The Muse” by Jessie Burton – review

When you’ve enjoyed an author’s debut novel as much as I enjoyed “The Miniaturist”, the arrival of a second book is a time not just of excitement but also a tiny bit of trepidation that perhaps this novel won’t quite reach the heights of the first.  Jessie Burton’s tale of the mysterious dolls’ house and its owner will always have a special place in my heart as I’d never read anything quite like it before, so it’s with some surprise that I’m able to say without hesitation that “The Muse” is actually a better novel.

The book is split fairly equally between two stories and time periods.  In 1967 Odelle Bastien, a young woman from Trinidad, thinks she has fallen on her feet when she lands a job at a London art gallery; before long, however, the arrival of an intriguing painting with a questionable history draws Odelle into a world of secrets for which she is completely unprepared.  In 1936, in a large house in rural Spain occupied by Austrian art dealer Harold Schloss and his family, the provenance of the picture starts to come to light.  The family have not long moved in when two local youths, Isaac Robles and his half-sister Teresa, come to the finca looking for housekeeping work.  Teresa quickly becomes friends with Olive, the Schloss’s daughter, but Olive’s attention is drawn towards Isaac, the artistic, volatile elder brother, who is politically passionate and as handy with a gun as he is with a paintbrush.  Spain is on the brink of the horrific civil war that will tear it apart, and the Schloss family’s involvement with left-wing revolutionary Isaac is about to become a very dangerous one.

One of the joys of this novel is the way the pieces of the jigsaw gradually come together to tell the true story of the aforementioned painting, so with that in mind I’m not going to give away any more details of the plot here.  What I do want to talk about is that magical something that makes Jessie Burton, in my eyes, such a compelling writer.  It seems a slightly bizarre thing to say, but what I loved most about this novel was the subtle but almost universal sense of sadness underpinning each character’s existence.  The arrival of the civil war in the latter part of the book brings with it vivid and grotesque horrors, but the author absolutely nails the face that suffering is not in any way confined to the big, key moments of grief or fear that periodically punctuate our lives.  Sadness hovers constantly about her characters, whether it’s two friends gradually growing apart, loneliness kept at bay with drugs and alcohol or a love affair that never quite turns into the grand romance that it should, the spectre of disappointment is always there.

So can the determined pursuit of artistic endeavour assuage this sense of disappointment?  Or is it in fact our demons that drive our artistic impulses and lead us to produce our best creations?  Isaac Robles, the angry freedom fighter, can undoubtedly paint with skill, but his true passion lies in creating not a beautiful piece of art, but the Spain that reflects his political ideology.  Olive Schloss is also a talented painter with an as yet unfulfilled desire to study at art school in England; but until she meets and develops passionate feelings for Issac, she has never found the raw soul to put into her work.  It goes without saying that the path of her love for this fiery young man will never run smoothly, but it is undoubtedly love’s torment that unleashes the talent she has always possessed.  Back in the 1960s, gallery administrator Odelle is nursing a creative spark of a different kind.  She’s an aspiring writer whose work has only been shared with friends and family until matriarch of the gallery Marjorie Quick spots her ability and encourages her to start thinking bigger.  Like Olive some thirty years before her, Odelle falls in love, but for her the relationship between love and creativity is a more ambiguous one.  On the one hand she recognises that for her, writing is in many ways akin to love; and yet love can also get in the way, preoccupying the mind that needs to be left free if one’s best work is going to come.  “The Muse” is more than the story of one painting; it’s a fascinating exploration of art’s place and purpose in life.

I really appreciated the fact that, although there is a genuine element of mystery to the novel, Jessie Burton is never out to completely fox her readers; she lays enough clues that you can start to work out where the story is going, and the plot is not so wilfully obscure that there have to be any bizarre twists in order to reach a resolution.  Yes, there are a couple of revelations left right to the end, the final one of which wrapped everything up so neatly that I wanted to punch the air in satisfaction.  The one issue I had with “The Miniaturist” was that it left a couple of pretty significant questions unanswered – or at least not answered adequately for me – but I had no such issues this time round.  I really felt that everything about the story had bene meticulously thought out, and the result is an extremely fulfilling read.

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“Anatomy of Murder” by Imogen Robertson – review

It’s always exciting when you discover a new author that you love, possibly even more so when they’ve already written several books as it means you can follow up your new-found passion immediately.  I’ve literally only just finished reading “Anatomy of Murder” within the last ten minutes, and have started beavering away at a review already as I’m so keen to share the love for what looks like being one of my new favourite historical crime series.  I’ve mentioned S J Parris and C J Sansom on the blog many times, and if you enjoy books of that ilk then you’ll adore this I guarantee.  One of the best historical novels I read lately was “The Ashes of London” by Andrew Taylor (if you read my review you’ll know how highly I rated it) and this is most certainly on a par in terms of writing quality and a vivid sense of time and place.  I should point out though that “Anatomy of Murder” is in fact the second book in the series, something I didn’t realise when I bought it; it didn’t spoil my enjoyment in any way but there were very definite references to events of the previous book that obviously had a bearing on the current situation of the main characters, so if you want to give this author a try I would recommend reading book one, “Instruments of Darkness”, first.

The opening scenes take place aboard a Royal Navy ship as she engages with a French enemy vessel off the coast of Newfoundland.  The year is 1781, and there are frequent Anglo-French clashes out in the Atlantic following the French government’s recent treaty with the Americans.  In this instance, HMS Splendour is successful and her foe captured; events begin to unfold, however, which suggest this apparently ordinary French ship may be harbouring something particularly valuable.  Flash forward six months to London, and we meet Harriet Westerman and her friend Gabriel Crowther, who have been summoned by a local Justice to help investigate the murder of a man found tied up and dumped in the River Thames.  Harriet, it turns out, is the wife of the man who was Captain on HMS Splendour when it secured its much talked about victory all those months ago.  Sadly, however, his illustrious naval career has been cut short since then by an unfortunate accident on board that has left him with severe brain injuries.  Harriet, while not exactly a widow, has lost any meaningful relationship with her husband as he languishes in a residential home, subject to bouts of confusion and aggression.  It transpires, however, that the fight against the French has moved from the high seas to the drawing rooms of the capital, as the murdered man is suspected of being involved in international espionage; it is now Harriet’s turn to take up the patriotic cause where her husband left off.  Like many a good detective story, there’s also a second mystery running alongside the main plot strand.  This one features another tough and resourceful female investigator, Jocasta, who lives and works in the less desirable parts of the city, earning a very basic living by reading tarot cards.  Not someone to be easily spooked, she is unusually disturbed by the reading she gives to a frightened young woman who comes to her for guidance.  Plagued by the certainty that something terrible is going to befall the girl or her loved ones, she decides to take matters into her own hands and before long her worst fears are confirmed.

What I loved most about this novel, and what I think makes it so successful, is the totally authentic representation of life at both extremes of the social spectrum.  In quite a few of the historical novels I’ve read, the middle and upper class characters (often these are also the main characters) are nuanced and believable, but the lower classes – the servants, street urchins and the like – can come across as somewhat clichéd, as if the author hasn’t quite got a handle on their reality.  This author treats every single one of her creations with equal care: Jocasta and the occasionally questionable people who she gathers to help her have sentiments and motivations as complex as those caught up in the high-society espionage game.  As for that strand of the plot, the intrigue centres around one of London’s great opera houses, a fascinating setting that opens the door to a vibrant world of equally vibrant characters.  For a certain section of society, the European opera singers who came to England to perform were the celebrity stars of their day.  Much of the story hangs on the mass adoration and hysteria that these musical legends – and the composers who wrote for them – evoked throughout the city.  It was an area so well researched (and well-loved I suspect) by the author that you’re utterly transported, and that’s what you want almost more than anything else from a historical novel I think: to feel as if you’re actually there.

It’s engaging from the word go, but the books really picks up to an incredible pace by the final act, to the point where I happily abandoned everything else in order to gallop through the closing chapters and find out how the story would end.  Without giving too much away, the conclusion was such that it made me quite interested to see where she takes the lead characters in her next book.  Imogen Robertson is definitely now a valued addition to my bookshelves, and I’d highly recommend you give this series a whirl.

“This Must be the Place” by Maggie O’Farrell – review

Nobody can write about being human like Maggie O’Farrell.  Nobody else I’ve read comes close to capturing the emotional essence of the tiny moments that coalesce to form our lives – the almost-brush of two hands, the sound of a long forgotten voice, the flash of memory from a photograph.  Nobody can put into words as she can the deepest and most unfathomable states of being such as grief and love.  When it comes to unravelling lives and knitting them together again into a gut-wrenching tapestry of humanity, she is in a class of her own.

If someone was to ask me what this book was about, hoping for a neat plot summary, then there wouldn’t be an easy way to tell them.  The linear story strand is really a thread from which to spin a multitude of narratives and ideas, each one digging deeper into the lives of the characters; it’s almost not so much about what happens as it is how and why.  The principal players are Daniel and Claudette, an apparently content married couple who live with their young children in a remote part of rural Ireland.  We join them just before something happens that tips their relationship into crisis and sets in motion a struggle between the forces that pull two people apart and those that keep them together.  The trigger for everything that unfolds is a seemingly insignificant event: a voice on the radio.  As soon as Daniel hears it he is jolted into remembering someone from his past who has lain dead and buried, literally and figuratively, for many years.  At this stage we know nothing about this mysterious woman, but she’s significant enough to send him on a quest that spans hundreds of miles – a journey he hopes will provide and answer to the question that’s been smouldering at the back of his mind for two decades or more.  It soon begins to look, however, as if by seeking out his past Daniel may be in danger of jeopardising his present happiness with Claudette; it transpires that she too has a history that has left her nursing an emotional fragility not apparent from her confident, no nonsense exterior.  Just as important as these current events, though, is the story of the lives that husband and wife have led up to this point, about which we find out through chapters told in flashback and narrated by different characters.  With this emphasis on backstory the author shows us how fundamental our pasts can be in shaping our present self, and how we can only truly understand her characters by seeing the loves, tragedies, transgressions and disappointments they’ve experienced and still carry with them.

Often when a novel is written using numerous voices and jumps between time periods I find it frustrating to read.  There is the potential confusion of where you are in the story’s timeline and also the pitfall of not engaging with some of the narrators as much as you do with others.  It takes an immensely talented writer I think to make all the voices resonate as authentically as each other, and the fact that Maggie O’Farrell has that ability is one of the things that makes the book work so well.  There are no filler characters or anyone whose point of view has been shoehorned in purely to provide some exposition: every single one makes a crucial contribution to the picture being painted of the two lead characters.  It’s almost as if by using such a complex, multi-person narrative the author is demonstrating that in a way each of us are as many different people as there are others to perceive us.  There’s even a chapter very near the end of the book told from the point of view of a completely new character who we’ve never met before and who has no bearing at all on the rest of the story.  At first I found that slightly bewildering but after some thought I realised it revealed another truth, namely that even people with whom we connect only fleetingly can have an insight into an aspect of our personality or situation that we ourselves haven’t seen.  Yes, it’s a novel about something that’s happening to people every day the world over – the forging and then the disintegration of a relationship – but the author is determined to go as deep as possible into the nuances of this commonplace yet absolutely fundamental element of human existence.

There are some perfectly captured moments here that will move you to tears; Daniel shouting for help in the hospital as he clings to his suffering child is the one that has stayed with me the most.  And you won’t be able to hear the words, “I’ve changed my mind” again for a while without your heart breaking ever so slightly.  Yet while nothing in the novel is smooth sailing – after all, when is life ever like that? – it’s still ultimately an optimistic book at heart.  If we love someone enough we will never stop fighting for them is the message here, and I can’t think of a more joyful message than that.

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Past Masters – Sarah Dunant

I haven’t done one of these blog posts in a while, so if you’re new to Girl, Reading this is an occasional series of articles in which I highlight my favourite authors of historical fiction.  Today I’m spreading the love for a novelist who knows how to get inside her characters’ heads like no other: the fabulous Sarah Dunant.

Which historical period does she write about?

She’s written some thrillers as well as historical fiction, but the novels for which she’s best known – and the ones that I particularly love – are set in late fifteenth and sixteenth century Italy.  This is the world of the Borgias and the Medici, a world where the religious, the profane and the political all intertwine in a brutal, sensual melting pot of humanity.

Why should I read her?

If like me you’re already fascinated by Renaissance Italy then you’ll be hard pushed to find another author whose fiction engages with the era so well.  I’ve read a number of novels set in this period and I’ve enjoyed most of them, but Sarah Dunant’s books are a cut above the rest.  What I find so fascinating about this setting, and what the author captures so well, is the fact that squalor and opulence, deprivation and extravagance rubbed right up against each other in a slightly bizarre society reminiscent at times of a surreal puppet show.  Yet behind the hedonism of the Borgias, the obscene wealth of the Medici and the hysteria-inducing religious extremism of Savonarola and his followers, it was also a time when intellectualism was bursting forth and unleashing new philosophies and creative expression on the generations to come.  In Dunant’s novels we experience in a very tangible way what it must have been like to live – or to survive – in a time such as this, in particular what life was like for women.  She creates some exceptionally strong female characters, some real and some imagined.  In “Blood and Beauty” we have a reimagining of Lucrezia Borgia, possibly the most famous member of this notorious family; in “Sacred Hearts” she gives us an insight into the life of a woman on a much more modest scale in the shape of Serafina, an unfortunate girl who has suffered the fate common to many women of the time of being forced into a convent.  All the characters truly become flesh and blood, and you feel every joy and every agony alongside them.

Which book should I start with?

I loved “Blood and Beauty” – apparently the story is going to be continued in a second novel of unknown publication date (if anyone has any news on it please feel free to comment below!) but it’s still a wonderful book and very much worth reading even if there’s no follow-on as yet.  Otherwise I’d go for “The Birth of Venus”, which has one of my favourite leading ladies of any novel I’ve ever read.

My Top 5 Mindbenders

There’s nothing more satisfying than a truly mind-bending novel, the kind that makes you feel the need to go and lie down with a cold flannel on your head as you recover from the effort of getting your head around the unfolding events.  No-one likes to be completely mystified; we prefer, I think, to feel like we’re on the verge of “getting it” before the author surprises us, and there’s a very fine line between complexity for complexity’s sake and the genuinely clever writing that drip feeds you just the right amount of information to keep the mental cogs whirring without leaving the reader floundering in a sea of confusion.  The novels listed here fall on the right side of that line, so if you fancy a bit of an intellectual workout you could do a lot worse than today’s top five.

  1. “The Luminaries” by Eleanor Catton – I’m not going to lie: when I read various reviews of this novel after finishing it I came to the conclusion there was a whole subtext that I’d completely missed. Yet even on the – apparently superficial – level on which I’d read it, it proved to be a pretty intellectual endeavour.  I don’t think I’ve ever come across another book that managed to juggle so many different characters’ plot threads, and I couldn’t help thinking that if keeping up as a reader was challenging then what on earth must it have been like to write!
  2. “The Ecliptic” by Benjamin Wood – by the time I got to the end of this novel I was in a state of stunned silence. It was one of those moments when you can only sit there thinking, “what? how? WHAT??” repeatedly, until you’re forced to admit that the author has been toying with you the whole time.  Slightly galling at the time perhaps, but with hindsight a very impressive feat.
  3. “Never let me go” by Kazuo Ishiguro – what makes this novel so clever is the way in which it skirts incredibly close to normality but all the while instils a sense that something is definitely not right. If you manage to guess where the story is headed then you’re a smarter cookie than me – in a million years I wouldn’t have seen the conclusion coming.
  4. “The Night Watch” by Sergei Lukyanenko – yes, there are plenty of wizards, werewolves and vampires, but this Russian masterpiece is less about the bloodsucking and more about the battle for control between the forces of the righteous Night Watch and the malevolent Day Watch. But hang on – are things really as black and white as all that?  Apparently not; just when you think you’ve got your head around the double crossing, the triple crossing begins, and by the end you will have no idea who the bad guys really are.
  5. “Stone’s Fall” by Iain Pears – this author is one of the ultimate scramblers of grey matter and I love him for it! If you want a devilishly clever plot that wrong-foots you at every turn and bombards you with twist after revelation after rug-from-under-feet moment, then try this; just make sure you’ve got your brain in gear first.  There’s a real skill in executing a story such as this without making it feel contrived, and despite the shocks it’s completely believable all the way to the end.

Hope you enjoyed today’s suggestions, as ever I’d love to hear what your choices would be!

funny books

My Top 5 books to make you laugh…

I’ve been getting bogged down in some truly depressing novels of late.  It seems that in everything I’m picking up there are either far too many unpleasant characters, or the likeable characters are undergoing such hideous suffering that I can’t bear to read on.  My desperate desire for something cheerful led me to write today’s top 5: quite simply, it’s my pick of the books that never fail to make me laugh.  If like me you’re stuck in a rut of literary misery then maybe one of these is the way forward!

  1. “Three Men in a Boat” by Jerome K Jerome – An oldie but a goodie, this nineteenth century classic proves that disastrous holidays have been a feature of life since time immemorial. Three men (and their dog) decide to take a break from the tedium of everyday living with a relaxing boating holiday.  Unfortunately their ineptitude combined with a series of unforeseen disasters result in a trip which is a very long way from the one they had in mind.  A hymn to the British determination to persevere with a plan no matter what, it’s a very funny read.
  2. “Stark” by Ben Elton – This early Ben Elton novel does what many of his books do: it makes a serious comment on an aspect of modern society in a side-splitting and riotous way. I’ve loved everything I’ve ever read by him, but this one has a special place in my heart as it’s the first one I tried.  Its theme is the environment, and it’s at once ridiculous, extreme, farcical – a scarily, a little bit believable.
  3. “The Diary of a Provincial Lady” by E.M. Delafield – If you’re a regular visitor to my blog you’ll know that I wrote a review of this a few days ago. She may be a creation of the 1930s but the Provincial Lady is just like any one of us (I particularly appreciate the way in which she fends off the melancholy of her financial woes by going shopping!)  Her neighbours are as hilarious as they are hideous, and it is with great wit that the heroine endeavours to maintain her integrity in a stratum of society where keeping up appearances is the name of the game.
  4. “Does my bum look big in this?” by Arabella Weir – I never took to Bridget Jones as a character, and in fact would go so far as to say I found her incredibly unlikeable at times. This, however, is what “Bridget Jones’ Diary” would have been like if it had a more naïve and endearing heroine.  The subtitle is “The diary of an insecure woman”, which tells you exactly what you’re going to get: jokes about cellulite, sex and dress sizes abound, and pretty good jokes they are too.  It might all sound a bit hackneyed, but for a bit of girly silliness you can’t do much better.
  5. “Down Under” by Bill Bryson – I knew I had to get a Bill Bryson book in here, as no author has ever made me laugh quite as uncontrollably. The question was which one to choose; in the end I went for this one purely because there’s a scene involving a visit to a small, provincial museum that is as close to comedy perfection as you’ll ever get.  Bryson can come across as somewhat curmudgeonly on occasion, but there’s no doubting his comic gift.

Well, that’s brightened my evening no end!  As always I’d love to hear your thoughts – which books make you laugh out loud?