Human Acts by Han Kang, trans. by Deborah Smith

South Koreans struggle to comprehend a 1980 uprising and the violence that follows.

human-acts

Human Acts is the second novel by Han Kang (The Vegetarian) to be translated into English. An introduction by translator Deborah Smith provides valuable context for this meandering book, which uses a dreamy atmosphere to explore the violence of a 1980 student uprising in South Korea.

Kang approaches the horrifying events of the Gwangju uprising obliquely. She doesn’t shy away from the shocking details–indeed, the novel opens with a young boy taking a brief respite from his work cleaning and caring for an overflow of unidentified dead bodies in a converted government office. But instead of spotlighting this violence, Kang focuses on the lives of individuals, beginning with Dong-ho, the boy caring for the dead, and then rotating through the views of those around him. First-, second- and third-person perspectives reinforce the feeling of circling the center of this event. After Dong-ho, the reader meets his best friend, shot dead in the streets; the two young women he works with; and his grieving mother. In a state of massive unrest, violence and terror, these characters appear dazed. Others look back over the decades that follow, including an editor wearily battling censorship and former prisoners struggling with old trauma. This range of voices, their sense of shock and unreality, along with the title, explore the possibilities of humanity: human acts can be variously brave, selfish, gentle and cruel.

Human Acts is a remarkable novel, at once lyrical, dreamlike and horrific. Smith’s succinct introduction is an excellent aid in understanding both Kang’s message and her artistry.


This review originally ran in the February 3, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 bodies.

Turkish Delight by Jan Wolkers, trans. by Sam Garrett

This Dutch novel of 1969 still titillates with its sexual content, but deserves serious consideration for style and themes, too.

turkish delight

Jan Wolkers’s 1969 novel Turks Fruit was translated from the Dutch into many languages and adapted into a highly regarded 1973 film. Sam Garrett’s English translation is not the first of this work, but reflects its continuing appeal.

Turkish Delight opens with the unnamed narrator, a sculptor, lamenting and railing against his lost love. He describes in great detail a surfeit of sexual affairs undertaken after she departed, then flashes back to describe their first encounter: Olga picked him up as a hitchhiker, then pulled over the car for the first of their sexual enthusiasms. Olga is the heart and life of this novel and of the narrator’s existence: he obsessively recites and reviews her body, her sex, her red hair, her love for animals, her jokes and delights. The lengthy flashback sees their relationship and, later, marriage run its course (his evil mother-in-law plays a heavy role), and returns again to the sculptor’s tortured single life. His love for Olga does not flag, even as she degrades herself (in his eyes) with subsequent marriages and physical decline. The novel ends at Olga’s deathbed, where the former lover feeds her the soft candy Turkish delight, as her teeth fail her.

Not for the faint of heart, Turkish Delight was immediately notorious upon its original publication for its graphic sexual content, and decades later remains a frank, granular portrayal of sex, bodily fluids and coarse language. It has much to offer beyond shock effect, however. The narrator’s tone is unapologetic, and if he is fixated on Olga’s body and its pleasures (and equally detailed in describing his later lovers), his message is as much romantic as it is sexual. On the one hand, he worships Olga as a romantic ideal, and on the other, speaks in a recognizable, colloquial, even familiar voice. It is easy to see how shocking, even revolutionary Wolkers’s writing appeared in 1969, and it holds the power to provoke today. But it is also an honest view of a sticky love affair, one made of sweets, devotion and passion, as well as cruelty and obsession. Fittingly, Olga and the sculptor welcomed a menagerie of animals into their home together, and in a way their relationship ends as violently as a pet destroyed with an accidental crunch, “as though the little bird was built around a wooden frame.”

Garrett’s translation of Wolkers’s prose is often lyrical and always heartfelt; the juxtaposition of poetry with crude language echoes the narrator’s passionate love and enormous lust. Turkish Delight is a serious and artistic literary work, but only appropriate for readers fully tolerant of graphic sex.


This review originally ran in the January 30, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 positions.

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, trans. by Megan McDowell

A woman and a boy sit in the dark, probing a shared story of love, danger and “the invisible thread that ties us together.”

fever-dream

Samanta Schweblin’s first novel, Fever Dream, is part contemplation, part living nightmare. Amanda lies in a dark hospital room, accompanied by a boy who is not her son. David walks her through the story of their meeting, as two very different mothers care for their two children in a dusty small town. Amanda worries over what she calls the “rescue distance”: “that’s what I’ve named the variable distance separating me from my daughter, and I spend half the day calculating it, though I always risk more than I should.” He presses her for details, because the two have an unnamed riddle to solve, but at the same time repeatedly chides her, “that’s not important.” This paradoxical sense of urgency combined with immobility evokes a classic bad dream. With relentless tension and steady pacing, the mystery of what has happened to Amanda, and to David, unfolds. This is a story about a parent’s need to protect her child; unnatural elements cannot obscure a cautionary tale about the pressures of parental love.

Fever Dream may be contagious: the reader should beware the compulsion to read it in a single sitting, pulled helplessly along by the power of the story. Though brief, its stream-of-consciousness style and absence of chapters emphasize a sense of inexorable forward momentum. Megan McDowell’s translation from the Spanish expertly delivers every atmospheric moment and line of near-panicked dialogue. A sense of foreboding hangs over this story that is at once a dark fairy tale and a realistic expression of everyday danger.


This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the January 20, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 details that do not matter.

book beginnings on Friday: Human Acts by Han Kang, trans. by Deborah Smith

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

Earlier this year, I reviewed Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, an odd and engrossing novel. And now I’m holding her next English-language release, Human Acts. Deborah Smith again translates from the Korean (and this time there’s a brief introduction by Smith, as well). Obviously I’m pleased.

human-acts
It begins:

“Looks like rain,” you mutter to yourself.

What’ll we do if it really chucks it down?

You open your eyes so that only a slender chink of light seeps in, and peer at the gingko trees in front of the Provincial Office. As though there, between those branches, the wind is about to take on visible form.

Lovely language and picture-painting words. I’m intrigued by the second-person perspective, and wonder if it will last. I’m often a little skeptical of this literary trick, as it’s perhaps getting a little overused, but I trust Kang.

Come back to see what I thought of the whole; this book publishes in mid-January.


This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Maximum Shelf: Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolito, trans. by Rachel Willson-Broyles

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on November 16, 2016.


quicksand“It smells like rotten eggs. The air is hazy and gray with gunpowder smoke. Everyone has been shot but me. I haven’t got even as much as a bruise.”

Malin Persson Giolito’s Quicksand opens with a tableau, featuring Dennis, a fat teenager from Uganda; Samir, an academic overachiever; Christer, the homeroom teacher; Amanda, “all cashmere, white gold, and sandals”; and the son of the richest man in Sweden, cradled in the narrator’s lap. “People like us don’t usually spend time together. Maybe on a Metro platform during a taxi-driver strike, or in the dining car on a train, but not in a classroom.”

Maja Norberg is on trial for her role in a school shooting that left her boyfriend and her best friend dead, among others. She has been waiting in isolation in a women’s prison for nine months. Media attention has been intense and frenzied: Maja comes from the privileged upper class of Djursholm, a wealthy suburb of Stockholm. She was a good girl, reasonably well-liked and a good student. She has been portrayed in the news as a poor little rich girl, self-centered to the point of disregarding the value of human lives.

In flashback chapters, Maja’s story slowly becomes clearer. Bit by bit, her relationships with her alleged victims are revealed. In two sections–one handling the trial and the other leading up to the shooting–Maja’s first-person perspective offers a shifting view of the world. “I read somewhere that ‘the truth is whatever we choose to believe.’ Which sounds even more insane, if that’s even possible. Like someone can just decide what’s true and what’s false?”

Quicksand is Persson Giolito’s fourth novel and her first to be translated from Swedish into English. Translator Rachel Willson-Broyles smoothly renders Maja’s voice, by turns cynical and yearning, hard-edged and vulnerable. Paired with a knack for deadpan dialogue, this voice presents a realistic impression of an 18-year-old woman, one charged with the most heinous crime in her country’s recent memory. The strength and poignancy of Maja’s nuanced voice command sympathy, even though she has–perhaps–done terrible things.

The central question of the novel is, of course, Maja’s guilt or innocence. Although the trial itself shapes the narrative, she is reluctant to make a claim about her involvement in the shooting, even in thought. Readers must follow along slowly in dual timelines, trying to determine the shifting truth for themselves. Meanwhile, Maja’s story imperceptibly expands to take on larger questions and issues: class and immigration, race and racism, criminal justice systems and the media, the consequences of wealth and leisure, love and obsession, what is owed by a parent to a child. The false dichotomy of guilt and innocence plays a central role. It is to Persson Giolito’s great credit that such weighty topics move smoothly through a plot that is taut and relentless, even as its protagonist passes monotonous days in a prison cell.

Because Maja’s traumatized, often apathetic perspective offers the reader’s only view of this story, characterization takes place slowly and leaves holes. Her family and classmates matter only as they matter to her. Dennis, her boyfriend’s drug dealer, is of little value. Amanda is both an intimate and an empty-headed cipher–Maja’s best friend, like a sister, but alternately familiar and remote. Maja has a real sister, too, who plays a very different role; her parents, unsurprisingly, are due for a certain amount of Maja’s scorn. Sebastian’s character is at the crux of the plot’s mysteries, standing in for all the contradictions implied by wealth, success and dissatisfaction. Maja and Sebastian’s romance begins with 15 days in the Mediterranean on a yacht almost 60 meters long, and she comments more than once on “the surreality of it all, that world of postcard-blue and sparkling sunshine and plink-plonk manicures.” This surreality drives home that sparkle and money don’t buy happiness. Maja will ponder that lesson and others as the trial progresses, as the reader gradually puts together the pieces of her story and as her fate looms.

Quicksand is a novel focused on a school shooting, but in no way feels hackneyed or dependent on its timeliness. In fact, it’s not really about a school shooting at all. It’s about larger abstractions, like loyalty and codependence, love and guilt, the incredibly complicated business of being a teenager, criminal justice systems (Sweden’s in particular, and as a concept), the role of the media and what a parent’s job entails. Expert dialogue and irresistible momentum make an all-too-realistic story come breathing off the page. It’s a novel that demands compassion, and an appreciation for the fine gradations of situations that tend to be treated as black and white. Part courtroom thriller, part introspection, Quicksand is pulled tight throughout by the suspense, not only of Maja’s verdict, but of the elusive “truth” of what really happened in the classroom that day.


Rating: 7 parties.

Come back on Monday for my interview with Malin Persson Giolito.

book beginnings on Friday: Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, trans. by Megan McDowell

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

fever-dream
A slim, well-regarded novel in translation from the Spanish. I’m all in.

It begins:

They’re like worms.

What kind of worms?

Like worms, all over.

It’s the boy who’s talking, murmuring into my ear. I am the one asking questions.

Intriguingly weird, yes? And I’m entranced by the cover. Horses and worms. Stay tuned.


This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Teaser Tuesdays: Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolito, trans. by Rachel Willson-Broyles

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat.

Teaser

This one will be coming to you as a Maximum Shelf in the next few months, and the book, not until March (sorry). It is Malin Persson Giolito’s first novel to receive an English translation, and we are in for a treat.

quicksandI’ve chosen this teaser because I think it speaks to some of the themes of the book.

The people in this room do not go together. People like us don’t usually spend time together. Maybe on a Metro platform during a taxi-driver strike, or in the dining car on a train, but not in a classroom.

The plot centers around a school shooting, but has quite a few other things going on, including commenting on class, immigration, race and racism, media and the criminal justice system. Essentially, in all those areas, it’s concerned with how people do and do not naturally go together. So what happens when a mismatched group, as our narrator feels this one is, is thrown together?

Stay tuned!

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

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