Book Review: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien (Knopf Canada, 2016)

I’ve been to Beijing and stood in Tiananmen Square three times in my life. The first time was, I believe late 1988 or early 1989, before our family moved to Canada at the end of 1989. I would have been about three years old on that first trip and I have no memories of the place. Beijing Spring had not yet occurred. At the age of sixteen, when I returned again to Beijing, I remember being naively surprised that there was no monument in Tiananmen Square to those whose lives were lost in 1989.

The narrator of Thien’s excellent novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, is a little older than me. About eleven years old, already in Vancouver in 1989, as events in Beijing unfold. Her world is more focused on the departure and death of her father, who has left her and her mother to return to Hong Kong and there taken his own life. Months later, a teenage girl appears in their lives, fleeing from the turmoil in Mainland China. Ma-Li, the narrator, and Ai-Ming become close, almost sisters in the months they are together and Ai-Ming unfolds the stories that have brought them together, telling Ma-Li about a history that is her own but that she didn’t know.

There are layers of stories here. There is the present day timeline of Ma-Li as an adult. A professor at Simon Fraser University who has lost touch with Ai-Ming and eventually heads to Shanghai to try and find her, as well as to learn more about their shared history.

There is Ai-Ming’s involvement at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Aged eighteen, longing to be accepted as a student at Beijing University, drawn into the growing unrest of the students and the people around her.

And there is the story of Kai and Sparrow. Two young men who meet at the music conservatory in Shanghai in the 1960s. They are both skilled musicians, young men with promising futures in an increasingly difficult and dangerous atmosphere.

The novel is ambitious, spanning much of Chinese history in the 20th century. Thien doesn’t attempt to offer a history lesson though and a basic understanding of politics in China in the last one hundred years will probably help the reader. Instead, she focuses on a few characters, delving deeply into their lives over a span of years. This way she shows us what life was like in China for so many. The secrets, the betrayals, the distrust.

What impressed me most about the novel and about Thien’s writing was that while the story is so specific to time and place, the core message and heart of Do Not Say We Have Nothing feels completely relevant and timely today. She does this through strong characters that are easy to recognize and empathize with, not to mention a lot of excellent prose.

Book Review: The Sellout by Paul Beatty (Picador, 2015)

The Sellout - Paul Beatty (Picador, 2015)

The Sellout – Paul Beatty (Picador, 2015)

I wasn’t familiar with Paul Beatty’s work before this past year when he became the first American to win the Man Booker Prize. Once I heard a little more about his style, I was eager to read The Sellout and it happily did not disappoint. The Sellout is satirical, uncomfortable, entertaining, eye-opening, and sometimes confusing. I want to say it’s timely, given the recent and ongoing racial tensions in the USA, but unfortunately those tensions are not exactly new. As Beatty demonstrates.

Our narrator, known by his neighbourhood nickname of Bonbon, of called The Sellout by others, or his last name Me (as in Me vs. The United States of America) is a lifelong resident of Dickens, an agrarian ghetto of Los Angeles with a largely minority population. So crime-ridden an embarrassment is Dickens that the powers that be decide to literally remove it from the map and pretend it no longer exists. In his efforts to bring Dickens back, our narrator gets his own slave and decides to reintroduce segregation. This has both its supporters and detractors.

The Sellout is deeply rooted in a particular black community and culture and is full of references to such. Some I’m familiar with and many were new to me. As I read, I found myself feeling very far from the target audience, as if Beatty’s narrator was speaking to a black reader and I happened to be listening in. And maybe that’s part of the point. This book isn’t for me and it doesn’t need to be. Which isn’t to say that I couldn’t enjoy it or even that I shouldn’t read it. It’s important to read literature that is entirely outside of our personal experience.

Beatty’s is one view and he offers this glimpse through both satire and truth so ridiculous it feels like it should be satire. The characters are larger than life, both hilarious and tragic. Beatty uses the n-word a lot, something I definitely found jarring though believable and effective within the context of Dickens and its residents. The last book I read that used the n-word frequently was William Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun and although Beatty uses the word more frequently his usage felt more honest and less hateful.

The Sellout is the perfect first American pick for the Man Booker prize as a book that shines an uncomfortable but necessary spotlight on one of the major issues in North America right now.

Book Review: The Vegetarian by Han Kang

The Vegetarian - Han Kang (Portobello Books, 2015) (translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith)

The Vegetarian – Han Kang (Portobello Books, 2015) (translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith)

Sometimes I read books and wonder if maybe I’m not quite smart enough for them. The Vegetarian is a short but complex novel. It’s beautiful and brutal and I was left feeling like there was a lot more to it than what I was picking up.

The Vegetarian is divided into three parts – moving through time and each from the perspective of a different character but always revolving around our main character. The book begins with the seemingly innocuous decision of a young woman to stop eating meat. The first section is told from her husband’s perspective, where we learn how angry and frustrated this makes him and how her iron will and his frustration light a fuse for abuse. Some of what’s at play here is cultural – marital and family expectations, for example – though we’re certainly not expected to sympathize with the husband. Kang presents it with a flat non-emotional tone that makes it even more disturbing and we never get close enough to this young woman to fully understand her motivation.

The second section moves to the perspective of the brother-in-law and his growing obsession with this young woman. An unsuccessful artist, he sees in her an opportunity for his greatest masterpiece. But his desire to create art is twisted in his sexual desire. Here we are reminded that beautiful art can have twisted origins. Does that matter? Does that take away from having created something beautiful? Again, Kang tells the story without judgement. We hear it from the brother-in-law’s perspective and yet there is a measured distance that keeps the reader at arm’s length.

The final section is perhaps the most intimate as we move to the sister’s perspective. The surrealism of our main character’s illness only grows and (in my mind) becomes more confused, but her sister’s pain and confusion makes this section the most emotional.

I was left to wonder what was real, what was imagined, what was hallucinated, what was to be believed. Maybe I’m not smart enough for this book or maybe Kang wants her readers to finish this short novel with a myriad of questions.

Deborah Smith’s translation from Korean was truly excellent, in my mind. She maintains the formal lilt of the language while never feeling false or overdone. It’s exciting to see a new category for translations added to the Man Booker Prize and I think this one is well-deserving of that award.

Book Review: The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

The Narrow Road to the Deep North - Richard Flanagan (Vintage International, 2013)

The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan (Vintage International, 2013)

Flanagan’s novel of Australian soldiers in World War Two is well-written. I wouldn’t say too well-written but the detail of certain horrors it describes is hard to take. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so physically ill while reading a novel before. Reading this was often like someone – Flanagan, I suppose – holding my hand to a hot stove. Painful and impossible to pull away.

The novel centres around the character of Dorrigo Evans. Evans is born into poverty in rural Tasmania but manages to escape the cycle and become a doctor and a soldier in the Second World War. (A flaw of the book is that we jump forward in time from Evans’ childhood to the war where he is already a doctor but it’s never explained how a poor child without education made that leap.) While in training, Evans meets the woman who will become his wife. He also meets a vivacious, beautiful young woman whom he is linked to in an unexpected way.

Shortly into his overseas placement, Evans is taken prisoner by the Japanese and he spends the rest of the war in a jungle prison camp, forced to build a railway for the Japanese Empire through dense undergrowth, in horrific conditions. The Australian prisoners are starved and beaten, suffering from cholera and malaria, tasked with an impossible goal, even if they weren’t all slowly dying.

…courage, survival, love – all these things didn’t live in one man. They lived in all of them or they died and every man with them; they had come to believe that to abandon one man was to abandon themselves.

Evans’ time as a POW is only a section of the novel but it’s certainly the most vivid and it is what forms his entire life, as well as the reader’s experience. Flanagan doesn’t shy away from the physical brutality of this experience. It’s hard to read. I understood better than ever before why survivors of such trauma would want to never speak of it, never think back on such a horrific experience. And, by and large, I feel that there has not been much discussion of the Japanese POWs in literature. World War Two is a topic broadly covered in 20th and 21st century English literature and the European experience has a lot of fiction and non-fiction writing on it. I’m less familiar with the stories that Flanagan lays bare and, perhaps, that’s why the book felt so raw and shocking to me. It’s hard to say I would want to hear or read more about it, but discussion and writing are an important part of acknowledging history. And recovering from it. As the book itself points out, to this day the Japanese government has made no formal acknowledgement or apology for its human rights violations of POWs.

There is a lot of death in this novel but, somehow, Evans survives. Carrying all that weight and guilt, he returns to Australia and falls into a life with the woman he left behind. The book begins and ends with him as an old man, where he has achieved a certain amount of fame as a survivor of the prison camp.

Flanagan doesn’t romanticize the prisoners in any way. There is no hidden beauty or nobility here. They help each other survive more through primal need and superstition than any innate human goodness. The glimpses Flanagan gives into the lives and thoughts of the Japanese soldier – their commander who knows that if he falls in the impossible task set out in building the railway, he must commit suicide rather than go home in shame, for example – create a greater depth but don’t make us more sympathetic to them.

To the contrary, Dorrigo Evans understood himself as a weak man who was entitled to nothing, a weak man whom the thousand were forming into the shape of their expectations of him as a strong man. It defied sense. They were captives of the Japanese and he was a prisoner of their hope.

Evans, who emerges as a leader among the men in the camp – both because of his officer status and a certain natural quality – is a deeply flawed character. His behaviour both before and after the war is not admirable and he seems to know this about himself. It is a guilt and a shame – along with that of being a survivor – that follow him for the rest of his life, although he does little to change his actions. It’s a fascinating portrait and a bold choice by Flanagan.

While I would definitely recommend The Narrow Road to the Deep North, I would caution the reader to know what you’re embarking on. This is a glimpse into the abysmal horrors of humanity. It’s not an easy thing to take in but it is important.

Book Review – To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

A couple of chapters in and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (Little, Brown & Co, 2014) began to make me feel like I need to book a dentist appointment. Though probably not with Paul O’Rourke, the main character, narrator, and dentist of the novel.

Paul is outwardly successful – he owns his dental practice, which seems busy enough, in New York City, and he has a certain passion toward his work and regarding oral health, and he seems proud to live in NYC. But it’s clear almost immediately how deeply unhappy Paul is. He’s an insomniac who knows he isn’t taking advantage of New York’s benefits, he finds his work frustrating because people just won’t floss, and his girlfriend who recently dumped him is still his office manager, Connie.

At its heart though, this is a book of faith and religion and I thought those subjects were handled by Ferris both creatively and thoughtfully.

Paul is an ardent atheist. Although, as he explains his past relationships, we see the ways he’s changed himself after falling in love. (And how that inevitably backfires for him.) We see his cringe-worthy behaviour with Connie’s Jewish family – his intense desire to be loved by them is painful and hilarious. Probably because many of us can relate. We see the ways Paul’s past and his own family have shaped him and grown in him this intense need to be accepted. We may not want to identify with Paul in most aspects but in this one, you really can’t help it.

The plot thickens when Paul finds a website set up for his dental practice – something he’s always refused to have. While the site is completely accurate and seems innocuous, it’s a mystery who set it up and why. Strangest of all are the quotes found on his bio page. Although they sound as if they come from the Bible, they have a strange focus on the Amalekites and every Biblical scholar Paul shows them to doesn’t recognize them. Paul finds more evidence of this alter ego on-line, posting in forums, tweeting, Always with reference to these mysterious verses, a slaughter of the Amalekites, a lone survivor, a people sworn to doubting God. As Paul tries to investigate, he becomes more intrigued and more caught up.

Not wanting to reveal too much, I’ll leave it there but I will say the plot gets very interesting and opens up some of the biggest questions in life. What is faith? Can doubt ever be an act of faith? Can it be holy? What do we look for when we join faith communities. What do we want, really want, from our lives?

Paul’s search for answers takes him into a secret history and possibly his own past. Whether or not he can ever find happiness there, you’ll have to decide for yourself. Ferris, thankfully, never talks down to his readers.

The book is very well-written and a worthy entry as one of two of the first American inclusions for the Man Booker Prize. Ferris stirs up these big questions with a light hand, rarely hinting at what his own opinion might be. Best of all, he succeeds with Paul as a narrator, a character who’s awkward and difficult and not particularly likeable and yet you still find yourself hoping for his best.