Nervous System by Lina Meruane, trans. by Megan McDowell

This complex novel moves between outer space and private torments to embrace bonds forged in pain.

Lina Meruane’s Nervous System is a novel both fanciful and visceral, pairing the study of the cosmos with medical mysteries and wounds on earth. It is set dually in “the country of the present” and “the country of the past,” the latter swimming with political violence and trauma, and bearing a resemblance to Meruane’s native Chile. Megan McDowell’s translation from the Spanish establishes an eerie tone, both emotional and detached.

The protagonist is Ella. Her partner is El: Are these names, or the Spanish pronouns She and He? El is also known as “the bone guy,” a forensic scientist combing through mass graves, “more migrant bodies made to disappear piece by piece,” to determine cause of death. Ella’s father is simply the Father, her stepmother the Mother; only gradually the reader becomes aware of the Firstborn and the Twins (Boy Twin and Girl Twin), completing a family filled with holes and secrets. Ella is supposed to be writing her doctoral dissertation in astrophysics, but she has stalled. “This final attempt would be spent on stars that had already lost their light and collapsed in on themselves, forming dense black holes.” Instead, she winds up tracking not solar systems but the systems of her own body, as an undiagnosed condition contributes to her long, slow downfall.

The narrative unfolds in a bit of a fever dream, as Ella’s thought process combines words in lyric but not-quite-literal forms, and chronology moves backward and forward. Chapters are set in “future time,” “restless present,” “between times” and “past imperfect.” “The universe has never known harmony, has never been a perfect mechanism, it’s no good for measuring time precisely.” Ella’s “voice is many voices, her question is nervous nebulous shooting short circuit of stars.”

The novel is narrated in a third-person perspective close to Ella’s own consciousness, and characterized by a dreamy, distant way of describing even horrendous events, “women hacked to pieces and children lost in arid lands.” Eventually readers understand that illness, injury and all sorts of damage manifest in the body and in the memory, and great love and animosity can and frequently do exist side by side. Amid these personal and political traumas, family and history, lies commentary on the modern world, relationships, grief and connection. “Maybe with time everything would be restored, but maybe not, because there in the night the stupid stars still hung and sprinkled calcium over the universe.” Nervous System is filled with anguish and unease, but also starlight, which touches Ella at its close.


This review originally ran in the April 27, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 treacherous rats.

guest review: Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta, from Pops

My father wrote this up to convince me to read the book; but I liked it enough to share it here. He worried about spoilers: “There is also much to say about the story itself, but I didn’t take the time to puzzle over how to do it without spoiling such an unusual book.” But I think it’s a good review, and a good handling of that problem. Some book reviews are definitely harder to write than others! I think he’s talked me into this one, but not sure how soon it will come to the top of my considerable list. Here’s Pops.

First published in Finland in 2012, Wiki says she wrote it simultaneously in her native Finnish language and English; it is now out in English too (2014); she lives in England.

Set in the far off future: China rules Europe, including the Scandinavian Union, which is occupied by the police State of New Qian. Earth has been devastated by severe climate crisis and oil wars, coastal cities completely flooded, infrastructure destroyed by war and accessible fossil fuels depleted. From clever reuse, this impoverished future retains some basic technology like primitive solar power and handheld ‘pods’ that serve as both information source and text communication. Weapons are knives and sabers, with guns seldom used.

Water is an obsession; fresh sources are limited and controlled by the State; water is a form of currency in local barter economy, held and transferred in plastic ‘skins’ in constant need of repair since plastic is no longer produced. Plastic is the common form of reuse, as it has still not degraded; only its usage changes.

Noria Kaitio is the 17 year old daughter and apprentice of a master of tea ceremony, an ancient practice of orchestrated tea serving and contemplation intended for all comers, but in fact an indulgence of the affluent and powerful. Events and thoughts of the Masters of each teahouse have been recorded for centuries in old books. She has inherited her mother’s quest for knowledge; she’s an avid reader of the rare paper books her mother collects, in a world where the State seeks to control all knowledge, especially history.

Her close friend is Sanja Vanamo, same age, who lives in the village and cares for her mother and little sister Minja, who is sickly. Their friendship is very close, but with tension over status difference. Sanja’s family is poor and must scrounge for water; scarcity contributes to Minja’s illness. Sanja is clever and mechanically skilled; she scavenges in the ‘plastic grave’, the landfill of junk, and makes use of it in many ways.

Itäranta is a master of restrained, sensual language and contemplative narrative. The tea ceremony itself sets the tone for the book’s voice, told with Noria in close third person. As readers we are not hurried, and encouraged to savor what we have before us, in the moment. Water is a constant object and metaphor, often depicted as a force in itself, a bottomless well in Noria’s life. For her, water is a complete source of life-giving sustenance: physical, emotional, spiritual. Such passages are brief and concise, scattered amidst narrative that moves along at a deliberate pace, consistent with the leisurely pace of a tea ceremony.

The narrative follows Noria’s life as she is disrupted by constant change. She is sensitive but wise; she is unswerving in upholding her independence when gender roles threaten.

Sounds compelling, and with some unusual literary elements. Thanks for sharing, Pops.

White Shadow by Roy Jacobsen, trans. by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw

This second in a gripping trilogy of home, place and relationships sees a woman struggle alone, and then less alone, in World War II Norway.

Roy Jacobsen’s White Shadow is the second in his Barrøy trilogy, following The Unseen, which introduced readers to the Barrøy family and the small Norwegian island that shares their name. White Shadow opens: “The fish came first. Man is merely a persistent guest.” It is not a man but a woman, however, who occupies the center of the novel. Now in her mid-30s, Ingrid Barrøy works on the mainland, splitting and salting cod and herring. She “longed to be gone, to be back on Barrøy, but no one can be alone on an island and this autumn neither man nor beast was there, Barrøy lay deserted and abandoned, it hadn’t even been visible since the end of October, but she couldn’t be here on the main island either.”

After paddling back to Barrøy, Ingrid is indeed alone amid the ruins of her family home, until the British bomb a German steamer carrying troops and prisoners of war in nearby waters. In her family’s hayloft she finds a man alive. They do not share a language, but they share much. Hiding her guest from the Nazis and their Norwegian collaborators will send Ingrid away from home again, and it will be another arduous feat to return, but it is always Barrøy for this stalwart protagonist. She stands “suddenly wonderstruck at all the things that had kept her on the island, which in truth were nothing at all.”

Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw, Jacobsen’s prose is as stark and unadorned as the landscape he portrays. His characters are hardworking, worn and stoic against a ruthless natural world, but there is beauty in their strength, and in the harsh simplicity of island life. “It is as it has always been, Barrøy has everything yet lacks something of real importance.” The central setting is limited in its scope, but in Ingrid’s travels she meets a variety of characters, including profiteers and refugees, eventually repopulating her home and tentatively, perhaps, building something new.

While there is a thread of romance here, White Shadow is more a profile of an individual and a culture (“people who never sat down”). It is also a sensory experience of rough conditions and cold, work ethic and strong ties. Ingrid’s community is hard-won and all the sweeter for it. No familiarity with The Unseen is necessary for this second installment, which stands alone comfortably, although the final lines do gesture at questions about the future of Barrøy.


This review originally ran in the March 18, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 herring.

How to Order the Universe by María José Ferrada, trans. by Elizabeth Bryer

Through a child’s clever but innocent point of view, this inventive debut novel considers family, hope and the harsher realities of 1980s Chile.

María José Ferrada’s How to Order the Universe offers an imaginative view of Pinochet-era Chile through a child’s eyes, as she assists her father in his work as a traveling salesman of Kramp brand hardware items. The world appears complex, fascinating and a little magical to M, the narrator. Elizabeth Bryer’s whimsical translation from the Spanish feels appropriate to M’s exceptional perspective.

Ferrada’s playful, poignant novel opens with the story of a young man named D, whose “first sales attempt happened the same day a man took a step on the moon.” He meets a beautiful woman. They marry and have a child, M, and so the narrator enters her own story. She begins accompanying D on his sales calls when she is seven. M’s school attendance is sporadic; her work as D’s assistant is important to both of them, and M’s mother is a bit detached. Father and daughter are close, in their dreamy interactions with each other and with a small community of salesmen and shopkeepers. She is treated as a small adult: “in recognition, I think, of the fact that I had grasped the complexities of human beings at such a young age, D showed me how to blow smoke rings. Small rings that crossed the city, expanding and dissolving in the distance.”

M’s narrative voice is solemn, serious. She is a little obsessed with categories and classification. D’s understanding of the world, and therefore M’s as well, involves hammer, nails, the moon and stars. “Every person tries to explain the inner workings of things with whatever is at hand. I, at seven years of age, had reached out my hand, and had grasped a Kramp catalogue.” She studies the organization of items for sale in shops: “I thought that discovering the sequence would bring me a little closer to comprehending the classifications used by the Great Carpenter to order the universe.” M is a precocious philosopher, but also a child, for whom certain realities eventually come as a surprise. When the family circumstances unexpectedly change, “There were two possibilities: A. Precariousness had always been with us, and I’d never noticed. B. Something had changed. Whichever it was, my childhood memories fractured: crack.”

How to Order the Universe is fanciful, sweet and moving, as M gradually registers and questions the changing world she inhabits, wrestling with violence, absence, the ability to make one’s own luck “with well-shined shoes and the right outfit.” Much of this evolution is filtered through her irrevocably changed relationship with D. “We had been deeply united by a catalogue of hardware store products: nails, hammers, door viewers, screws. But that catalogue no longer existed.” This is a beautifully translated, thought-provoking novel of profound themes and childlike wonder.


This review originally ran in the February 8, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 door viewers.

A Silent Fury: The El Bordo Mine Fire by Yuri Herrera, trans. by Lisa Dillman

Having loved Yuri Herrera’s trilogy of novellas, I was excited to learn he had a new book out this year, his first nonfiction, and again translated by the outstanding Lisa Dillman. A Silent Fury is a slim history of a 100-years-ago tragedy in Herrera’s hometown of Pachuca, Hidalgo, in central Mexico. It is minimalist because records are minimal, but it is lyrical and powerful in its minimalism, and a righteous fury does shine through it. I’m ready to follow Herrera (and Dillman) anywhere.

The El Bordo mine, owned by a subsidiary of the United States Smelting, Refining and Mining Company, caught fire on March 10, 1920. Within hours, the company estimated that “no more than ten” men remained inside, and that they were certainly dead; they ordered all three mine shafts sealed. Six days later, when the mines was reopened, seven men came out alive. Some eighty-seven were dead.

The story is full of problems, horrors, holes. How did the fire start? When did the fire start? What made the company so sure there were no survivors (when they would turn out to be so horrifically wrong)? How many died because of their decision to seal the shafts? What responsibility does the company bear? (The appointed investigation would go out of its way to swear up and down that the company was blameless.) There exist almost no documents bearing the voices of mine workers, survivors of the fire, or families of those lost. Herrera pieces together what he can from a case file and a few news stories.

But there are also oral accounts, given by miners and their families, and it was through these that I learned about the fire: there are at least two crónicas, one by Félix Castillo, the other by José Luis Islas; and a novel by Rodolfo Benavides. All were written years afterwards.

This book, like those accounts, refuses the judicial truth that reduces this history to a file in the archive. But none of these words are mine.

Instead, Herrera writes, he reconstructs events using the accounts available, choosing the most credible version where there are several, and pointing out contradictions and omissions. “Silence is not the absence of history, it’s a history hidden beneath shapes that must be deciphered.” For me, then, this book is in part a commentary on what history is. There is certainly commentary; it is not literally true that none of these words are Herrera’s. Of the surviving seven miners who came out of the sealed shaft after six days, the company’s doctor and local officials agreed

that the miners were “in a perfect state of health and had no internal or external injuries,” save for the fact that a few were in “an advanced state of starvation.” They really said that: in a perfect state of health but starving to death. Rarely has a boss expressed so honestly what, in his opinion, the perfect worker is like.

We hear Herrera’s quiet (but not silent) anger again when he recounts the struggles of the family members of the dead miners, in a section titled “The Women’s Fire.” Wives, common-law wives, daughters, mothers, and grandmothers were asked to prove their relationships to the deceased, in order to qualify for compensation. “Every single one of the qualified witnesses called in to vouch for the truthfulness of their testimony was male.” This kind of simple sentence communicates a great deal of emotion.

Silence is a recurrent thread in this story. The title occurs verbatim in just one moment: in a photograph of the seven survivors, Herrera tells us that “they don’t look like they just escaped from hell… with the exception of one, the first man on the left, who seems to betray a silent fury: lips clamped together, brows arched. But, again, no one recorded what they thought or felt at that moment.”

I say again: they sealed the mine shafts on nearly one hundred men, for six days.

This book is deeply moving in its brevity, with a clear grasp of the power of white spaces, what is left unsaid – silence. Herrera is the right writer to probe this story again. It’s beautiful and heart-breaking.


Rating: 8 signatures.

Stella by Takis Würger, trans. by Liesl Schillinger

Disclosure: I was sent an advanced reader’s copy of this book for review, originally intended for Shelf Awareness.


Takis Würger imagines a relationship between an inoffensive, rather boring young Swiss man and a German Jewish woman in 1942 Berlin. Friedrich is Würger’s fiction, but the young woman he meets as Kristin is a real historical figure. As a novel, Stella might have worked out in its handling of the troubled love affair, which deals with the layers of mystery and (dis)honesty we wrap ourselves in, set within a developing, expanding, horrifying Holocaust. But this story is too intertwined with those horrors, without adequately dealing with them, and I was left disturbed and unable to recommend it.

The novel opens in Friedrich’s privileged but lonely childhood, his father mostly absent and his mother drunk and abusive. As Hitler rises to power in Germany – a place that is both geographically nearby and psychically distant to the child – his mother, German by birth, is excited, eventually to the point that she leaves her family to go to Munich and cheer the Nazis on. Friedrich, now a young man, decides he wants to see Berlin. He is curious, detached, like a tourist. He notes that the cook in his childhood household – who was kind to him when his mother was not – is Jewish, but seems unmoved.

In Berlin, Friedrich explores, halfheartedly studying drawing; he is bored, until he meets Kristin: she models for his drawing class, she tutors in Latin, she sings in a nightclub. He’s enchanted. She comes to live with him in his hotel room, but remains mysterious; she goes out alone during the days. Eventually she confesses that her name is really Stella, and she is the daughter of “three-day Jews,” who attend synagogue only three holidays per year. This deepens her mystery but does not solve it. Friedrich gradually comes to understand that her freedom to move around Berlin is continually purchased by her betrayal of other Jews in the city. He feels something about this, but the reader feels that he does not feel enough.

The digest-style injections of 1942 current events, month by month, are a wise choice; they keep us rooted in the wider world and horrors of this setting, when Friedrich is in real danger of forgetting them.

Stella has a tone of listlessness or ennui, of not quite caring enough. The publisher’s copy presents this as “a tortured love story against the backdrop of wartime Berlin [that] powerfully explores questions of naiveté, young love, betrayal, and the horrors of history.” As a consideration of young love, it could have been moderately successful. But the use of that backdrop makes me very uncomfortable. To wield the power of the Holocaust to tell such an uninspired story as this one feels inappropriate. That the narrator loves a woman who causes perhaps hundreds of deaths feels like something that should have been dealt with in some way. The heavy moral questions aren’t addressed at all. I don’t necessarily need for Stella’s character to have been wholly condemned; to make her situation complex and make the reader grapple with that would have been a literary feat. But that’s not attempted. It’s just a facet of her life that is brushed over like her hairstyle and her Latin tutoring gig. I don’t think the novel lives up to the weight of its context; I think it might be exploitative. I’m not able to recommend it.


Rating: 3 random billy goats.

The Transmigration of Bodies by Yuri Herrera, trans. by Lisa Dillman

Vicky came to give him a kiss and, right as she was about to, turned to one side and sneezed into her elbow.

Maybe one day people wouldn’t even remember when everyone had started doing it like that, instead of covering their noses with their hands. It takes a serious scare for some gestures to take hold but then they end up like scars that seem to have been there all along.

So, the first headline about this book is its eerie relevance to our Covid present (original publication date 2013; in English: 2016).

The Transmigration of Bodies is part of a loose trilogy with Kingdom Cons and Signs Preceding the End of the World. I have read them years apart and a little out of order, so, grain of salt; but it seems their connections are about setting, theme and style, rather than serial characters. Each is absorbing, atmospheric and brief. Someday I’d love to read them again in publication order back-to-back, but that day will not come in the fall of 2020 (so help us all).

In an unnamed Mexican city, a plague has swept through. The streets are mostly empty but for military checkpoints. The mystery illness transmits through respiration; some people wear masks, others take a politicized (or macho) stance by not wearing them. (It was entirely creepy to randomly open this book in August of 2020, let me tell you.) Our protagonist is a man called the Redeemer – the story is told in close third person from his perspective. His job in this rather apocalyptic setting is to handle an exchange of bodies. A young man called Romeo Fonseca has apparently been kidnapped by the Castro family, while the Fonsecas in turn are holding Baby Girl Castro. Both Romeo and Baby Girl have died in the custody of the opposing family, but the Redeemer (with the help of his nurse friend, Vicky) finds that each died of the plague and not by violence. Still, the trading-back of the bodies is a fraught moment, what with the longstanding enmity between the Fonsecas and the Castros, complicated by grief and the general mistrust of the plague-times. (Along the way, the Redeemer will discover the origins of the families’ feud.)

At his home, in between his work for the Fonsecas, the Redeemer is involved in some sexual escapades with a neighbor. I found these interludes a little gratuitous; I’m not sure exactly what they add to the whole, although they’re consistent with the femme fatale of the hard-boiled detective genre.

More sobriquets are used in this story than names: the Redeemer, Dolphin, the Mennonite, Baby Girl, the Unruly, Three Times Blonde. Epithets lend the feeling of mythology, of these people being as much symbol as individual, although they are individuals. The emptied (and militarized) streets of a usually-busy city spook me, the reader, as much as they do the Redeemer. While there are plot twists, this feels like a novel of character studies and atmosphere more than a novel of plot. Backstory and development of individual characters – Vicky, Neeyanderthal, Romeo, the Unruly, and the Redeemer himself – and the Redeemer’s philosophies are the highlights, for me. Yuri Herrera’s writing is a place to get lost in, rather than a story.

I love the sentence-level writing style, for which credit is due both to Herrera and translator Lisa Dillman. She retains the rhythms and patterns, and some usages, of the Spanish language; she coins words and phrases (grimreapery, drunkaneers) which I assume mirror Herrera’s coinages. (I loved hearing him talk about Dillman’s translation work when he visited my MFA program a few years ago. Herrera speaks very serviceable English, but he appreciates Dillman’s different take on his work.)

In the other two books, I noted themes having to do with borders and transition. I found less of that here, although now that I go looking, it’s right there in the title: the transmigration, or crossing over into death. I felt this book was more about trust and distrust, and the transactional nature of trust, as when the two families must rely on their hired fixers to assess a need for revenge. Some similarities have been drawn to Romeo and Juliet. Although there is no romantic connection between the families’ children, they do share a longstanding feud that is perhaps somewhat resolved with shared grief.

Another fascinating novel from Yuri Herrera – who, I’ve just seen, has a new work of nonfiction out; I ordered it immediately. I think these novels are excellent studies in translated literature and in the novella form – worlds to get lost in.


Rating: 7 condoms.

The Tree and the Vine by Dola de Jong (trans. by Kristen Gehrman)

This sensitive novel illuminates women who love women in pre-World War II Holland.

Originally published in 1954, Dola de Jong’s The Tree and the Vine was a groundbreaking portrayal of lesbian lives in Holland just before the outbreak of World War II. This updated translation from the Dutch by Kristen Gehrman retains what is fresh, understated and moving in the original.

Bea, a shy office worker and the narrator of this story, keeps to herself and considers social activity a chore, until she meets Erica. Within weeks, they become roommates, and Bea is increasingly fascinated by her heedless new friend: Erica, a journalist, keeps strange hours and doesn’t seem to sleep. Her moods vacillate. Over many months, the pair becomes close, and Bea is simultaneously obsessed and resistant to her own feelings, telling herself that independence is paramount. “I could no longer live without her, and with her there was nothing but the strange existence that had been predetermined.”

As the threat of a German invasion grows, Erica gets involved with several female lovers, often in abusive relationships, while Bea plays the loyal friend always there to bail her out of trouble. On the brink of war, realizing that Erica is half Jewish and engaged in risky behaviors, Bea takes a half-step toward recognizing what they share. “She never spoke those few words again…. We’ve accepted it, each in our own way.”

The tone of The Tree and the Vine is often backward-looking and elegiac, told at a distance of years. But the immediate events of the women’s lives feel frantic: Erica rushes about, Bea panics. What is most important almost always goes unsaid.

The prose can occasionally feel a bit stilted, or involve a bit more telling than showing; but in fact what is shown, often, is not actions or expressions but Bea’s own deep feeling and anguish. The result is a love story on the brink of war in which the love never quite steps out in the open and the war remains off-stage. A sense of looming, momentous events pervades this slim novel.

In a thoughtful translator’s note, Gehrman notes linguistic peculiarities of de Jong’s original: anglicisms and words and expressions from the French, for example, which Gehrman has worked to maintain, and her delicate handling of Dutch idiom. She argues that The Tree and the Vine is not just a lesbian novel but “reflective of a broader female experience.” By turns emotional and restrained, this powerful story indeed offers valuable perspective on the human experience.


This review originally ran in the April 23, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 sandwiches.

The Magical Language of Others by E. J. Koh

Letters from mother to daughter shed glimmering light on reunions, reconciliation, immigration, heritage and familial love.

Poet and translator E.J. Koh grew up in California’s Bay Area, the daughter of Korean immigrants. Her parents moved back to Korea when she was 15, leaving her to live with her angry, taciturn 19-year-old brother. By the time her parents returned to the United States, Koh was off to graduate school in New York City. During those years of separation, a flurry of letters from mother to daughter sketched a yearning over distance.

The Magical Language of Others revolves around these letters, translated from occasionally English-spattered Korean. Koh read them as arrived, but it wasn’t until much later, in their rediscovery, that she came to understand what they offered. In a small box she has kept for years, Koh finds exactly 49 letters: “In Buddhist tradition, forty-nine is the number of days a soul wanders the earth for answers before the afterlife.”

As Koh studies Korean and Japanese, and eventually adds a graduate degree in Korean translation to her graduate poetry studies, she works as well to translate the love, longing and abandonment of generations of women. Her paternal grandmother’s memories of Jeju Island are first idyllic and then filled with trauma from the massacre in 1948. Koh’s privileged but heartbroken maternal grandmother, after several suicide attempts, left her cheating husband in Daejeon and took an apartment in Seoul. She loved it there, but eventually relented and moved back home to a family that begged for her return. “Coming to one home, she had abandoned another.”

Meanwhile, in Koh’s own lifetime, she deals with young adulthood with her antagonistic brother. She makes frequent trips to see their parents in Korea, where she shops and visits the bathhouse with her mother, formally studies languages and informally studies people. “He waved not a hand but a blank page, and I knew it was gestures like this one that meant nothing.” Such luminous prose is evidence of an unusual mind.

This slim book is a memoir–of the years Koh spent quasi-orphaned in California; her visits to Korea; finally sharing a continent and eventually a home with her parents again in adulthood. It is also a study of generations of women before her. Koh considers how people make poetry out of imperfect lives, and how they interpret and generate love. In startling, lyrical, imaginative prose, Koh wrestles with the meanings of devotion and duty, and with the challenges of language and translation. Her final lines are as heartbreakingly beautiful as the entire book deserves. The Magical Language of Others is a masterpiece, a love letter to mothers and daughters everywhere.


This review originally ran in the November 25, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 parentheses.

The Starlet and the Spy by Ji-Min Lee, trans. by Chi-Young Kim

In 1954 Seoul, a war-weary young Korean woman and Marilyn Monroe share a brief but crucial sojourn, and learn they have more in common than they thought.

“I go to work thinking of death. Hardly anyone in Seoul is happy during the morning commute, but I’m certain I’m one of the most miserable.”

At the opening of Ji-Min Lee’s The Starlet and the Spy, Alice J. Kim works as a translator for the American forces a year after the armistice and ceasefire. Her life and outlook are as dour as these introductory lines represent: the traumas of the war have left her hopeless and joyless, taking her day-to-day life as a series of tasks to be completed. When her boss tells her about an upcoming assignment, he expects she’ll feel excited and honored to serve as escort, interpreter and handler for Marilyn Monroe, on a tour to entertain American troops. Alice is unmoved–what does she care for an American movie star?

During the course of four days with the bombshell, however, Alice will be forced to broaden her perspective on her own life and options. Her two former lovers both reappear, shaking her understanding of what exactly happened during the war. There seems the hint of a chance that she will find someone she’s lost. As Alice struggles with her will to live, the American beauty surprises her. Stunning, sexy, charismatic, yes; but Monroe is also unexpectedly approachable. And she will make a small but essential difference in the life of the less famous woman.

Lee’s novel is rooted in historical fact and inspired by two photographs: one of Monroe performing for American troops, in a slinky dress, in the snow; the other of an unknown female Korean interpreter. It is the intersection of these two lives that interests her. Two women, one famous, the other a novelist’s blank slate. What if they had met?

The Starlet and the Spy is bleak but whimsical and, yes, hopeful. Seoul has been beaten down; food is scarce and orphanages overflow. Alice dyes her hair with beer and steals pornography from work to sell to her landlady. A former artist, she doesn’t draw anymore; being forced to create endless portraits of Stalin during the war has dulled her passion, another loss that it seems she will not recover from. But she may have more friends than she thinks she does. Chi-Young Kim’s translation is both spare and emotionally evocative, suiting a narrator who is simultaneously desolate and childishly yearning.

Born of a curiosity about human relationships in unusual times, The Starlet and the Spy asks the questions: What if we met across a divide? What if a despairing young Korean woman reached into Marilyn Monroe’s makeup bag for a lipstick, or a way out? In a decidedly optimistic turn, Lee leaves her ending open, and her reader free to wonder what might be next for Alice.


This review originally ran in the August 5, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 propaganda fliers.

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