The Vegetarian by Han Kang tr. Deborah Smith #WITMonth

A novel in three acts that centre around the middle sister whose behaviour goes relatively unnoticed by those around her until she decides to become vegetarian, because “I had a dream“.

I’m already under the spell of Han Kang, having read Human Acts earlier this year, an extraordinary and unique book and I find The Vegetarian equally compelling, perhaps even more disturbing, a visceral, disturbing depiction of the fragility of the mind and the strange mechanisms, illusions we attach to in order to cope. It won the Man Booker International Prize 2016 and I’m reading it as part of #WITMonth, reading women in translation.

The Vegetarian reminded me of the distressing yet refined style and experience of reading Yoko Ogawa’s novel of interlinked stories Revenge and the shock and compulsion of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest but really it is in a league of its own, a remarkable literary expression of the effect of people, our external environment and of our internal methods of coping, questions Han Kang poses through the situations she puts these characters into and our observations of what then happens.

The book is structured into three parts:

I. The Vegetarian – right from the beginning Kang draws up the husband and wife (Yeong-hye) characters with such precision, skill and intrigue, I was completely hooked from those initial pages. Their uneventful life changes suddenly with her decision to become vegetarian, bringing out the worst in everyone.

Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way. To be frank, the first time I met her I wasn’t even attracted to her…However, if there wasn’t any special attraction, nor did any particular drawbacks present themselves, and therefore there was no reason for the two of us not to get married.

II. Mongolian Mark – this is a reference to a kind of birthmark that disappears post adolescence, it becomes the cause of an infatuation by Yeong-hye’s narcissistic brother-in-law, the obsessive video artist who is inspired to create what he perceives will be his greatest work, if he can convince his sister-in-law to become the subject of his oeuvre, and balance the fine line between art and pornography.

‘Will the dreams stop now?’ she muttered, her voice barely audible.

III. Flaming Trees Yeong-hye is in a psychiatric hospital, her sister her only visitor, the visits and the realisations she is having take their toll on her as she begins to understand her sisters descent from being human into believing that she is like or wishes to become a tree, that all she needs is sunlight and moisture, slowly depriving her human form of sustenance.

This pain and insomnia which, unbeknownst to others, now has In-hye in its grip – might Yeong-hye have passed through this same phase herself, a long time ago and more quickly than most people? Might Yeong-hye’s current condition be the natural progression from what her sister has recently been experiencing? Perhaps, at some point, Yeong-hye had simply let fall the slender thread which had kept her connected with everyday life.

It’s a sad tale of a woman’s descent into madness and how it affects those around her and has the reader wondering if this was brought about by the effect of attitudes and behaviour towards this one woman or whether this was something that was in her all along, something that is in everyone and under certain terrible circumstances can degenerate a sensitive human being into such a state.

Not one to let the reader off so easily Han Kang explores all avenues and leaves the reader continuing to ponder the same questions that perhaps inspired her to create this extraordinary, award-winning novel.

Click Here to Buy a Copy of The Vegetarian via Book Depository

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Paint Your Wife by Lloyd Jones

I have been missing writing reviews lately and won’t be back to it for a little while yet, but here is a link to my most recent review, which I wrote for BookBrowse, along with a short article that goes beyond the book and looks into a related subject.

Paint Your WifeThe book I reviewed was Lloyd Jones Paint Your Wife.

Lloyd Jones is a New Zealand writer, most well-known for his novel Mr Pip which made the Booker Prize shortlist and won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize.

Paint Your Wife is the story of the inhabitants of a small community, living in a town that has lost its charm and begins to rediscover it, when one of its citizens displays portraits of the towns women that he painted while their husbands were away at war.

It is a charming, fascinating insight, a kind of domestic novel, but from the male perspective and a tribute to picking up a paintbrush and pausing for some hours to actually observe what it is that is in front of you.

Pierre-Bonnard-The-Bathroom

Pierre Bonnard, The Bathroom

The accompanying article is about a number of well-known artists mentioned in the book, who painted their wives.

One in particular, whom the character Alma was fascinated by, the French artist Pierre Bonnard, only ever painted his wife from memory, something Alma aspired to.

Here is the link to my review at BookBrowse, the complete review will only be available for a short time for non-members, so check it out soon. It’s in This Weeks Top Picks, currently.

Click on the title to go to the review:

Book Review, Paint Your Wife

To buy a copy of the book, you can find it by clicking here:

Paint Your Wife by Lloyd Jones

 

Lloyd Jones recently wrote a memoir about his family history, called A History of Silence, there is a link to an extraordinary radio interview below, I am really looking forward to reading it and shall be writing more about him here in the near future.

A History of Silence

Links

Radio Interview – Uncovering the Mystery of his Family’s Past

Georgia: A Novel of Georgia O’Keeffe by Dawn Tripp

I’ve loved Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings since I stumbled across them one weekend in an art gallery in Chicago and felt the effect of them, rather than saw them as such, for they are indeed imbued with feeling and when you see one of her large canvases with its bold visual statement, well for me anyway, you can’t help but be moved by it, struck dumb by it, to stop and appreciate how this artist communicated something deep within you, without words or reality. I felt it almost like a punch, I didn’t quite understand what it was, but I wanted to know who is was that had created that effect on me.

Although I bought a beautiful book about her paintings, it was something less intellectual and more personal I was after. I found a very old, yellowed copy of Laurie Lisle’s Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keeffe.

It provided an excellent framework of her life, her childhood and introduction to art, her various shows, her marriage and need for solitude and her eventual move to that part of the world that most resonated with her, New Mexico.

However, O’Keeffe comes off as a rather distant, aloof character, seen from the outside, rather brusque, detached. The biography filled in her life, but left me still wanting to know who she was, sure there was much more to her that we would benefit from knowing.

One of the things that makes Georgia O’Keeffe such an interesting character is not just her work, but her essence, her self-knowledge and ability to act upon it, to ensure that she lived in a way that allowed her art to express itself in an authentic way. When she wasn’t able to do this, her mental health declined, however she knew how to resolve it and in acting accordingly, lived to the age of 98.

She married the well-known gallery owner and photographer, Alfred Stieglitz, something of a scandal as she was 25 years his junior and he left an unhappy marriage for her, but she never collapses into the relationship, they find a way of supporting each other, that also allows them be individuals and to pursue (most of) their own ambitions wholeheartedly.

Inevitably there would always be compromise, Stieglitz accepted that O’Keeffe needed to spend a portion of the year in New Mexico without him and O’Keeffe had to accept that Stieglitz did not want to become a father again.

GeorgiaWhich all leads me on to say it was with quiet anticipation to learn that Dawn Tripp had the courage, respect and admiration for O’Keeffe to decide to venture into creating a work of fiction, that attempts to channel the voice of Georgia O’Keeffe. What might she have really been thinking if it was her voice relating the story of this life and not someone from the outside.

Georgia: A Novel of Georgia O’Keeffe does exactly that.

Dawn Tripp similarly came across her story through her art, after seeing an exhibition of her abstractions at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2009. She had been aware of her work, but experienced something different that day.

As early as the fall of 1915, at twenty-nine-years old, she was creating radical abstract forms when only a handful of artists were bold enough to explore this new language of modern art. Her abstractions of that time – and those she continued to create throughout her life – were ambitious, gorgeous shapes of colour and form designed to express and evoke emotion, and they were stunningly original.

It provokes in the author, a desire to want to know this woman, the artist, the creator of these stunning works and why she was not recognised for the visionary power of these abstractions during her lifetime. There were excerpts from letters as part of the show:

The language of those letters was sharply intimate, vulnerable, complex. O’Keeffe’s letters revealed a woman of exceptional passion, a rigorous intelligence, and a strong creative drive. Her letters had a raw heat that felt deeply aligned with the abstract pictures I was seeing on the walls, but at odds with the image of O’Keeffe I’d grown up with: the aged doyenne of the Southwest, poised and cool, holding the world at arm’s length.

My Faraway OneWhen the novel was almost complete, the correspondence of O’Keeffe and Stieglitz was published, having been sealed for twenty-five years after her death.

It was a pleasure to read this novel that attempts to get inside that mind and share something that feels more genuine in terms of what her work intended, than the easy reference that so many of the male critics of the time jumped to, insinuating the sexual by responding to the visual elements of Stieglitz’s nude photos of her and the soft interior of her giant flowers, rather than the essence of life itself pushing forth.

This is the Georgia O’Keeffe I’ve wanted to know, and suspected existed, from someone who has tried to absorb her childhood, upbringing and place in the world, attempting to understand what she was trying to express and how it was both uplifted and repressed by the decisions she made.

To explore those initial choices, few of which were her own, the effect of Steiglitz managing and directing her career, their relationship, her need for a child, their life between New York and Lake George until the moment when she allows herself to visit New Mexico with her friend Beck and begins an annual pilgrimage to a place that will eventually consume her entirely and become her home, both physically and spiritually.

We see O’Keeffe as a young independent woman, learn about her family background, their vulnerability to TB, the shock of meeting Stieglitz’s wife and family, the abundance of material wealth and food, she so close to nature – and yet so attracted to him, his mind and his person.

Georgia O'Keeffe, 1920

Georgia O’Keeffe, 1920

She resents her art being seen through his lens of her, by the critics, that association with gender, the feminine. The thing that builds her up, blinds them to the work as she sees it. She seeks solitude. She resists being photographed, unable to convince through other means. By the time Stieglitz divorces, Georgia is lacklustre on marriage.

Her mental decline from accepting it all, the inevitable, necessary turning point, turning away from her husband, though forever connected to him.

Dawn Tripp has us completely immersed in a perception of the life of Georgia O’Keeffe that feels as real as if it were the artist herself speaking, though we all know how private she was, and through this novel we understand that need even more so.

People can be sceptical of the fictional biography, but when it is well researched, and the author has found the appropriate voice, and treats the subject with respect and understanding, it brings history alive and makes it accessible to a much wider audience than the more traditional, detached form of narrative.

I highlighted so many paragraphs and sections in the book, it would make the review too long to show them. All the better to discover the words for yourself.

Absolutely brilliant, loved it.

Notes on the Paintings Depicted

OKeeffe painting“Pink Tulip”, 1926, Georgia O’Keeffe, oil on canvas, 36” x 30”
The Baltimore Museum of Art, Bequest of Mabel Garrison Siemonn, in memory of her husband George Siemonn.
©Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

Georgia O’Keeffe, Untitled (City Night) (Untitled – Night city), Seventies © 2009 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / © Georgia O

Georgia O’Keeffe White Iris, No. 7 (White Iris # 7), 1957 © 2009 by Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / © Georgia O

Georgia O’Keeffe, “Ram’s Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills,” 1935, Oil on canvas, 30 x 36 in. Brooklyn Museum, New York.

Click on the link to buy this book.

Buy Georgia: A Novel at Book Depository

Note: The book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via Netgalley.

The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr

Tracy Farr’s delightful, fascinating debut novel is the fictional memoir of Dame Lena Gaunt: musician, octogenarian, puffer of exotic substances. It was one of my Top 5 Fiction Reads of 2015.

Lena went from a background of playing traditional instruments to becoming a modern musician, being the first theremin player of the twentieth century, an intriguing instrument played through movement but without the musicians hands actually touching the instrument.

Lena Gaunt

From its opening pages where we experience Lena’s daily routine, her strong pull to the sea, The memory of music in her bones, it becomes a book that grows on you until it becomes unputdownable.

“I move my arms in wide arcs in front of me, pushing water out to the sides and back again. I can feel the stretch in my shoulders, the tendons tense and twist. Bubbles form up my arms and, trapped in the tiny pale hairs, tickling like the bead in champagne. Moving my fingers in the water effects tiny changes in the waves that effect bigger movements. Action at a distance; just like playing the theremin.”

Lena Gaunt was an only child, born in Singapore, spending a solitary childhood in the tropics before being sent “back Home” her parents called it, alone to Australia where her Uncle deposited her at a private boarding school, at four-years of age. She became closer to her bachelor Uncle Valentine than her parents, who were distant, not just physically, but emotionally and who died before any change in their relationship might manifest.

Lena played the piano, but her first true love was the cello, one of her few regrets, that in taking up the theremin, the instrument she would become most well-known for, she stopped playing the cello.

After an unsuccessful visit to her father in Malacca (Malaysia) at 18, one where he had hoped to groom her into the demure, music playing, after dinner entertainment for his friends, a night walk into the seedier parts of the town, where she stumbles across her Uncle and her father’s business partner in an opium den, has her sent back to Australia, willingly and to the beginning of a life she will create anew.

“It had taken little for me to disappoint my father, but in truth, he too had disappointed me. Father, home, family; empty words, without meaning for me.”

She is introduced to and practices cello with Madame Vita Petrova, the eccentric, vodka and coffee drinking Russian with a unique ear and skill for the cello, not found in the more conservative establishments. It is her first encounter with the artistic and musical misfits, a bohemian community with whom she is more comfortable and will become part of.

It is through Madame Petrova she hears of the Professor, the man who introduces her to the instrument, the Music’s Most Modern Instrument, she will play for the world, the theremin.

“played by the waving of hands, like conducting an orchestra. It is played without the player touching it, not with a bow, nor by blowing. It is neither wind nor string, brass nor percussion.”

The Bridge, Dorrit Black (1930)

The Bridge, Dorrit Black (1930)

In Sydney, she meets Beatrix Carmichael, a painter/artist twice her age who becomes her constant companion, a part of who she is, one who really sees her. As Beatrix paints the two sides of the Sydney Harbour Bridge coming together on her canvases, from the verandah of their home, it feels so real, and yet there is a sense of the end of an era, as the subject becomes less intriguing on completion.

“We celebrated it, this joining of the city, the coming together, and yet Trix mourned it too. Since her return from Europe, since her arrival in Sydney, she’d been painting the growing bridge in parts, separate; in fragmented shapes formed of light and colour and sun and music.”

The novel follows Lena’s long, engaging life, and each turn of events that takes her away from the familiar until finally she returns to the place that most feels like home, where she plays one last performance and will meet the young filmmaker Mo, who provokes her into completing the life story she began to record many years before.

As the filmmaker questions Lena Gaunt about her life before the performance she had just given (in her eighties), the narrative flashes back to her past, her isolated childhood, boarding school, separation from family, visits by Uncle Valentine, the piano, the cello, musical influences, her life with Beatrix, making her remember it all, even the painful memories she had hoped never to re-encounter.

It is a fascinating story, a mix of fact and fiction, one that Tracy Farr succeeds in bringing alive through the places Lena visits and lives in, the people we encounter, the music that is made, the images that are painted and the heartbreaking losses she must sustain.

Lotusland by David Joiner

LotuslandLotusland starts out with the main protagonist Nathan, taking a long train journey from Saigon in the south of Vietnam where he lives, to Hanoi, the capital where he will visit his friend Anthony who he hasn’t been in touch with for some time.

Ironically, he reflects on the many things in his life that he perceives have always been a long wait for him. Ironic, because he is a character who has difficulty keeping a commitment, distracted too easily by the allure of the new and unknown, like the girl with the pink hair he meets on the train, or the attraction and undivided attention he gives to a new feature article he is asked to write, neglecting other commitments.

What follows is a well written story exploring the relationships between these two expatriate American men living in Vietnam, both their relationships to each other and the local women they marry/befriend and their contrasting attitudes to work.

Girl With a Fan by Công Quốc Hà Source: Wikipedia

Girl With a Fan by Công Quốc Hà
Source: Wikipedia

Nathan, a struggling writer, considers entering Anthony’s real estate business to make money, promising he is serious this time, though his word is rapidly thwarted by his developing relationship with the pink-haired woman, a traditional Vietnamese lacquer artist and gallery owner Le, in the weeks before he is supposed to leave Saigon and move to Hanoi.

“Somehow the mystery of the painting excited him even more than Anthony’s job offer. As he prepared to return to Saigon with the task of wrapping up his life there, the offer paled in importance to the chance he had of getting to know her.”

Anthony, now a successful business owner, husband and father of two small children he can’t communicate with, is barely in control of his rapid success or family life, unsure whether to rely on his friend, though it is clear he needs him for more than just work reasons.

The couples are like the escaped and the escapee, almost doomed from the beginning as they represent that often classic situation of the allure of a foreign culture, where the aims of the individuals are the opposite to each other despite their attraction.

Le has an interview at the American consulate for a visa and has made it clear to Nathan that that is the basis of her interest in him, a fact he seems intent on ignoring, preferring to pursue the illusion of a more intimate relationship.

“How’d it go?” He touched her hand, her arm, her cheek. “You’re still alive, and your body’s intact – all good signs.”

“It went okay,” she said, giving him a quick hug. “It’s hard to tell with Americans. They’re serious but also friendly. I don’t know what’s real. The worst part was dealing with the Vietnamese staff. They look down on people like me.”

It’s an often painful, uncomfortable read as David Joiner makes no excuses for his characters’ flaws and we witness that selfish aspect of humanity in which every person appears to want something from the other yet rarely puts the needs of the other before their own before acting or speaking.

Like a falling trail of dominoes, each person wants something from the next, though rarely is the desire reciprocated, individuals search for that thing just beyond their reach without appreciating what they have at hand. Blindness, illusion, disillusion, the impulse to escape.

It reminded me of a quote from Jamaica Kincaid’s expansive essay A Small Place, on her returning to the island of Antigua where she grew up, after many years of being away.

“That the native does not like the tourist is not hard to explain. For every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere. Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this. Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour. But some natives – most natives in the world—cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go – so when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.”

David Joiner excels in evoking the sense of being in Hanoi, a city I visited 20 years ago and adored (see my photos above). I was quickly transported back there through his ability to develop a vivid sense of place and found those passages where the action is accompanied by this strong sense of the surroundings captivating.

“In Hanoi the French presence could still be felt, preserved in the architecture and layout, whereas in Saigon the atmosphere still harked back 30 or 40 years to the American era, the notion of aesthetics crowded out by the practicalities of war.”

I was shocked to find myself at the final page, an abrupt ending that leaves the reader with much to think about and likely to provoke discussion about the mix of post-war opportunity, life in foreign cultures, immigration, freedom and entrapment, capitalism and whether and or how it is possible to overcome the clash of cultures within a relationship.

Hanoi by Cheong Source: Wikipedia

Hanoi by Cheong
Source: Wikipedia

Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi, tr. by Adriana Hunter (French)

A single mother of two boys wants to take them on a little holiday near the sea. That might sound simple enough, but for this mother, it is a major life event and a challenge, as she suffers from some kind of mental affliction that normally requires her to take daily medication.

Beside the SeaThis trip is out of the ordinary and we experience it from inside the mind of the mother, the stream of consciousness narrative is so effective here, it gets inside our mind as we read. We feel her sense of anxiety acutely and become almost as sensitive as she is to the threatening hostility of the outside world, that place from which she wishes to protect her children.

She wants them to experience the wonder of the seaside, she takes them for hot chocolate and they visit a funfair, all of which present certain challenges. She observes and reflects on aspects of their characters with a poetic clarity that all mothers will relate to.

“I stopped on the sea wall, my two kids holding my hands, I wondered how to do it, how to say hello to the sea.  It was making a hellish noise, really angry, and the children cowered. I stayed there, not moving a muscle, watching it…I’d been waiting for it such a long time!”

It is an incredible novella and I appreciated it all the more, ironically, after following  recent discussion on Vishy’s review of Nabakov’s Lolita . They discuss that dilemma many readers have when they recognise an exceptional prose style but feel uncomfortable with the subject or the perceptions of the protagonist. It makes it hard to share an opinion and it takes time to understand our reactions. We observe them first and then try to understand them.

What I found most interesting in those subsequent comments actually came from the more experienced readers, those who had read it more than once and they describe what changed in terms of their own perceptions with subsequent readings. In the first read we react more to the story and character, in subsequent readings it seems the reader has greater insight into the intentions of the writer/artist, beyond surface character and plot.

Those comments made me think more about Beside The Sea and wonder if I might appreciate it more coming to it for a second time. I was in admiration of the style but uncomfortable with the journey. I would recommend it to the curious, thinking reader who isn’t quick to judge and it’s not one to read when you’re feeling fragile.

anxietyThe author does an incredible job in making the reader empathise with the mother, even though I didn’t particularly enjoy going into that state and arriving at its inevitable conclusion.

I also couldn’t help thinking about these kind of stories in the media, the short versions which usually focus on the result and not what leads people to where they end up. I don’t want to spoil the read, so you’ll just have to read it to find out what I mean by that. I think the enjoyment of this book will also be dependent on where one is on the ‘potential for empathy’ scale.

It is an interesting challenge, that an author would choose to travel inside the mind of someone like this and write in the stream-of-consciousness form.  I am sure this was one of the works that the publisher and writer Mieke Ziervogel read as background research in writing her own debut novella ‘Magda‘.

Poignant and thought-provoking given the issues that lie beneath its surface, this is the story that is almost never told and rarely understood by the public, who often only see that end result favoured by the media and judge it far too easily.

This is the first book in the Peirene Press Female Voices: Inner Realities series, all of which I am reading in January 2015.

Next Up : Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal (translated from Catalan)

Female Voice Inner Realities