The Vegetarian by Han Kang

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The Vegetarian by Han Kang
The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Yeong-hye has a dream, and the following morning becomes a vegetarian, much to her husband’s disgust. From that point forward Yeong-hye starts to fade from herself, her refusal to eat any living thing results in mental and physical decline.

I am going to struggle to explain this book to you, dear readers, but I’ll have a go, and if you don’t read any more of this blog post, then just read this: Get a copy of this book, read it and be amazed.

The story is told in three parts. Yeong-hye’s husband, a frankly horrible man who works in an ordinary job in an office and is shocked at his wife’s change, narrates the first section of the book. Rather than try and understand and help her, he leaves her. Admittedly, She is firmly committed to her newfound lifestyle, but she doesn’t explain why.

The second part focuses on Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, an artist, who becomes obsessed with her. In the final section we see her older sister trying to help Yeong-hye, who by now is fading, she isn’t eating and is in mental health facility.

We hear very little from Yeong-hye herself, other than some short paragraphs detailing her thoughts, which range the mundane to the bizarre.

Taking the story on face value, it is a sad account of how a young woman for reasons known only to her, starves herself and succumbs to an eating disorder. I am not going to claim I know what the underlying meaning of the book is, although it feels to me to be a parable. Once I read it, and looked back on it, I could see multiple layers fluttering within it, but all of them quite hard to grasp. It is haunting, and violent, and made me question free will, the right to die, families and personal principles.

The language is rich, shocking and colourful, and I suspect that each person who reads it will take something different from it. I will re-read this, perhaps next year to see if my interpretations are different. I have a feeling that this is one of those books which impacts you in vastly different ways depending on when you read it. 

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After Dark by Haruki Murakami

I seem to be a long way behind everyone else when it comes to reading Murakami. There isn’t any reason for this other than I just haven’t really got around to it. I picked up After Dark at my last reading spa at Mr B’s.

The book is set in Tokyo, at midnight. We meet Mari, a student sat in an all night cafe reading a book and drinking coffee. Her sister is at home, asleep, as she has been for several months. She doesn’t appear to be ill, just asleep. 

As the story progresses through the night Mari meets a trombonist who is rehearsing with his band in a cold damp cellar close by. He later sends the manager of a local love hotel to find Mari to help interpret for a Chinese prostitute who has been beaten up by a strange man. 

Meanwhile, something very odd is happening to Mari’s sister. The television in her room is unplugged, but it is showing a picture. The picture is of a room, empty apart from  bed.

Having done my fair share of nightshifts early in my career, I know how odd time becomes, especially around two or three in the morning. This book plays with time, and on occasions light seems to slow as reflections are left in mirrors even after the person has left. The narrative is also written in the first person plural, and so “we” observe what is going on. It all adds up to be a distinctly unsettling read, compounded by much which is mundane. 

Where In The Literary World Are You Today?

Closely Observed Trains by Bohumil Hrabal
Closely Observed Trains by Bohumil Hrabal

Today I am in Bohemia in 1945 with Milos who works at a small train station used extensively by the German army to move trains back and forth between the fronts.  There are plans afoot to disrupt the German trains. In the meantime everyone is gossiping about the alleged consensual use of Railway stamps on the telegraphist’s bottom by a co-worker…

– Closely Observed Trains by Bohumil Hrabal

Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami

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I love Japanese literature, it has a style unlike anything else. I have Mr B himself to thank for introducing it to me.

This particular book was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary prize, and it is utterly beautiful, in an understated way. It is the gentle love story of Tsukiko, now in her mid-thirties, and Sensei, her Japanese literature teacher from her High school days. They see each other at random in a local bar, eat and drink, but always with a distance. At almost glacial speed, their relationship takes tentative steps forwards, and the a few back, but always there is a need for closeness, but also a yawning gap.

This is not a romcom, a slushy romance, or anything which would have you raise an eyebrow. It is a story which evolves, slowly, and gently as the attraction between the two of them is left unspoken.

The writing is beautiful, and I was particularly struck by the way the passing of the seasons are described. I love experiencing the seasons change here in the UK, that sense of tangible time, and this captured it perfectly.

It’s a short book, but a lovely one, which will slow your mind, and warm your soul. 

Doppler by Erlend Loe

This is a Norwegian tale, of a man called Doppler. He has a comfy lifestyle in Oslo, with a good job, a nice house and family. One day he falls off of his mountain bike and gets a bump on the head. From then on he can’t see the point of consumerism, and doing things because society says he should. He takes a tent and moves into the forest leaving everything else behind.

One day, desperately hungry he kills an elk, and then finds that a young elk is now without a mother. He befriends the young elk and they form a bond. Much of the book is the conversation between Doppler and the elk he names Bongo about how he wants to live his life. 

Soon, people start to hear about the man in forest and join him, blowing his peaceful existence apart. 

It all sounds a bit barmy, but it has a fable type feel to it, with some lovely humour which masks the real crux of the book which is an attack on the way we live our lives based on what we are told makes us happy and not on what actually does make us happy. 

The Whispering Muse by Sjon

OK, I’m going to have to come completely clean here. I really enjoyed this book, but I am not sure quite what it was about. Well, I know what it was about, but I am not in all honesty sure I know what it means. If anyone has read it and can enlighten me, I would be much obliged. 

It is 1949 and we are on a Danish merchant ship with Valdimar Haraldsson, and Icelandic man with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the effect of fish consumption on the Nordic people. He joins the crew of the ship on a voyage to broaden his horizons. Each evening the crew and passengers come together at the Captain’s table to dine. Each evening the second mate tells tales of when he was aboard the Argo, the ship which took the Argonauts on their long voyage to regain the Golden Fleece. It transpires that the second mate is the mythical hero Caeneus. So far, so, well, odd. 

Haraldsson is an immense bore, but not boring to the reader. He is one of those terrible know-it-alls who I seem to get lumbered with on public transport. He competes with Caeneus with lectures on fish, whilst Caeneus clutches a wooden splinter from the wrecked Argo. 

The writing is simple, but draws you into the world of life onboard a ship, and when Caeneus starts the next chapter of his tale, somehow you get pulled in, just as if you have had a good meal and one glass of cheeky red too many. 

The ending was rather a surprise, and the book was all the better for it. 

The thing that is troubling me is that this feels like a modern fable, but I am not sure I understand what it is getting at. Nevertheless it’s a great read, and if I never get to fully appreciate it, it doesn’t matter, I enjoyed it.

Published by Telegram Books

Lazy Days by Erlend Loe

Apologies for the deathly silence around here this week. The residents of Fennell Towers have been somewhat distracted by another project. However, we have still been reading, in my case this fantastic, if rather odd book by Erlend Loe. 

If you are thinking, “My word, the lady on the front cover has a remarkable resemblance to Nigella Lawson”, then you would be on to something. 

This is a short novella in which Nigella plays a very important part. Bror Teleman is a Norwegian theatre director, but what he really wants to be is a famous playwright. We meet Teleman and his family as they holiday in Germany, in the shadow of the Alps and he thinks about theatre… and Nigella… a lot. Teleman is obsessed by the lovely Nigella, and his mid wanders to her as he “thinks about theatre”. Meanwhile, his wife and children are busy enjoying the delights of southern Germany with their German hosts. Teleman seems to be sinking into what can only be called a mid-life crisis as his daydreams about Nigella take over more and more of his thoughts.

The majority of the books is written as conversations between Teleman and his wife Nina. There are no quotation marks around the prose, so reading it take a bit of practise, but is by no means difficult. These conversations capture beautifully the low level chat which happens in a long term relationship, but Loe uses these to show the reader how things are going wrong.

There is also a running joke throughout about a mis-translation by Google of an email which the family receive from the German couple they are renting their holiday home from. This is so ridiculous, but also so very true, that it seems to give the whole book a really solid foundation of reality and hilarity.

The novella is very dark, but also very funny and very well observed and is definitely worth a few hours of your time.