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.

Cabo de Gata by Eugen Ruge, trans. by Anthea Bell

This clever, stylish novel in translation follows a German man’s quietly tortured self-exploration in an austere Spanish village.

cabo de gata

In this slim, unassuming novel, Eugen Ruge (In Times of Fading Light) experiments with form and style, setting a plot of quietly tortured self-exploration in an austere Spanish village. Cabo de Gata is almost minimalist in its events, but expert detail fills out a story larger than its circumstances. In Anthea Bell’s translation from the German, the unnamed narrator’s voice suits him perfectly.

In Berlin in the years just after the Wall came down, Ruge’s narrator feels stuck. He has a good-enough if meaningless job; his ex-girlfriend calls only to ask him to help care for her daughter; he suspects the punks in the ground-floor apartment stole his bicycle. He sees the rest of his life rolling out in front of him in mind-numbing routine, doomed “like the undead” to empty repetition. And so he leaves.

Indecision about where to travel pleases rather than alarms him: he seeks the unknown, “for the sake of experiment,” because he is also an aspiring novelist. He chiefly wants someplace quiet and warm, and so flees to Cabo de Gata, a town in Andalusia promised by the travel guides to offer “a breath of Africa.” The nearly abandoned fishing village turns out surprisingly to be terribly cold, the inhabitants gruff and standoffish; his writing comes out bitter. He is a curious, contradictory character, perhaps not entirely reliable: he is not superstitious, he announces, and then proceeds to find signs in hermit crabs and his dead mother in a stray cat. Intermittently obsessive, he fills his days as much with invented tasks and rules as he does with writing the intended novel.

It may sound absurdist, but Ruge’s quietly affecting story is more understated than it is bizarre. The narrator has his quirks, such as a fondness for humming “The Star-Spangled Banner” (“Jimi Hendrix taught it to me in his famous appearance at Woodstock”). But he is essentially involved in a search both existential and humdrum: where to go from here.

The narrator tells his story from a distance, from a much later time in which he hints that he has been very successful, and he pointedly chooses not to consult notes or check his facts (“I could Google it,” he writes, but he doesn’t). This meta-view offers another layer for the discerning reader to dissect. On the surface the odd story of a troubled man haunting a Spanish ghost town, Cabo de Gata also poses questions about life’s directions and perspectives.


This review originally ran in the September 30, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 candles.

The Penalty Area by Alain Gillot, trans. by Howard Curtis

When a grumpy soccer coach takes in his 13-year-old nephew, they’re both forced to grow, on and off the field.

penalty area

Quirky and heartwarming, Alain Gillot’s The Penalty Area introduces an eccentric soccer coach who finds unexpected happiness in the oddest places. Vincent Barteau retired from playing professionally after an injury, settling instead for coaching as a way to stay in the game. Coaching children was never the plan, but this job pays well enough. He is a loner, frustrated with the mediocre talent he has to work with. When his estranged sister shows up to deposit her 13-year-old son with him, Vincent is understandably annoyed–until he puts his nephew Léonard on the field and everything changes.

Léonard is a chess prodigy and all-around odd boy. He dislikes soccer for being “too simplistic.” It is only in deciphering plays, percentages and tactics that his exceptional intellect is engaged. Caring for Léonard exposes Vincent to new people and scenarios; the man dislikes change as much as the boy does, but in the new world that opens before them, possibilities abound. Léonard discovers soccer. Vincent discovers family and hope.

The Penalty Area handles material that could easily overindulge in sentiment, but Vincent’s awkward, exasperated approach to life and human flaws admits no foolishness. Howard Curtis translates from the French in occasionally stiff prose, which nonetheless suits the equally stiff narrator. Vincent’s voice offers the novel a disarming vulnerability; Léonard and Vincent’s exploration of new challenges feels fresh and endearing, even humorous. No love of sport is required to feel the genuine emotion pulsing from this story about making connections.


This review originally ran in the September 13, 2016 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 shots on goal.

Teaser Tuesdays: Turkish Delight by Jan Wolkers, trans. by Sam Garrett

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

Teaser

Dutch author Jan Wolkers is considered one of his country’s greats, and his fifth novel Turks Fruit (in Dutch) was among his splashiest. Sam Garrett’s is the newest, but not the first, English translation.

Check out all that text on the cover: this is indeed a feisty and erotic novel. (I love that they’re advertising Kirkus’s not-so-complimentary words.)

turkish delight

That’s why I felt this teaser was so perfect.

It was because of the ominous thunderstorm and the way the lightning kept illuminating the garden with bright flashes that, for a fraction of a second, showed you every detail of all those separate trees you’d never noticed before. As though the director was pulling out all the stops in some melodramatic B-movie.

Similarly, Wolkers could be said to pull out all the stops, and engage in melodrama; but once you’ve accepted that that’s the style of this work, I think there is much to be said for its artistic merits, and you can’t argue with its passion. Just… not for the squeamish.

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

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