(2016) The Year in Books – The Vegetarian

the-vegetarian

I’m not sure why, but every time I heard someone recommend this book they described it as the story of a woman who decides to stop eating meat, only to then deal with the social fallout as her friends and family fail to understand this decision. Well, fancy my surprise when I get to the bit where someone starts talking about turning into a tree.

Sure, The Vegetarian starts off with its protagonist Yeong-hye, a regular housewife in a regular (well…let’s call it ‘semi-functional’) marriage, deciding to abstain from meat after a particularly disturbing nightmare. And sure, a hefty section of the book describes the unsympathetic reactions of those around her. Her literally-good-for-nothing-all-around-terrible-person husband flies off the handle when she refuses to cook him anything containing meat. His coworkers and their families come close to outright bullying as she refuses to eat meat at a dinner party. And her family go way past the point of bullying as they at one point literally force meat into her mouth and try to make her swallow it. (side note: this inability to understand someone’s choice to be a vegetarian might sound really strange to you. While I’ve never lived in South Korea it does seem to have something common with my current home Japan – a country where vegetarianism is decidedly Not A Thing, and where restaurant staff have been known to respond to requests for a dish with ‘no meat’ by recommending meat stock-based dishes, just with the actual huge slices of meat removed (occasionally with little flakes of meat still in it because that’s not really meat after all).)

But it’s about a hell of a lot more than just vegetarianism, even if its treatment of Yeong-hye’s situation is indeed insightful and at times slightly sickening. Divided into three sections, The Vegetarian starts to wriggle itself apart at the seams as it transitions from the first into the second. The uncaring, borderline sociopathic narration of Yeong-hye’s husband that focuses on his wife’s decision gives way to Yeong-hye’s neurotic, increasingly unhinged brother-in-law as he obsesses about his art projects, which one day come to centre around an equally unhinged obsession with Yeong-hye herself. And at a moment of unbelievable climax it transitions again into its third part, where again our viewpoint shifts. This time the narrator is Yeong-hye’s sister In-hye, as she tries to care for both Yeong-hye and her own troubled family.

In trying to write about The Vegetarian these past few paragraphs I’ve sort of come to understand why everyone just told me it was about a vegetarian and left things at that: it’s almost impossible to talk about it without giving everything away. And while it’s not a mystery story, or even particularly dependent on keeping secrets from the reader, some of the power of The Vegetarian would definitely be stripped away if you were to go in expecting all its weird twists and genuinely insane sucker punches.

I will say, however, that what it does it does incredibly well. Han Kang’s prose (and of course Deborah Smith’s translation) is simultaneously sharp and deadened. It captures something sad and awful about ordinary lives in Yeong-hye’s marriage, her relationship with her family, and society in general. There’s a heavy, suffocating atmosphere hanging pregnant over the whole thing (pregnant with dread), which only becomes more heavy and much much much much more suffocating as the book continues and Yeong-hye’s life begins to fray at the seams.

But also, wow, that middle section. While not exactly throwing off that heavy, suffocating atmosphere, it also temporarily manages to escape it – shooting suddenly upwards into the mania of an artist completely absorbed in their own work. Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law is a sad, strange character, but it’s also shockingly easy to find something to recognise and, perversely, even root for in his abandonment of his ordinary life for his weird and increasingly unhealthy obsession with a single aesthetic desire. And this holds true, even as things culminate in what could very well be the emotional and sexual exploitation of someone with severe mental illness. In a book otherwise so harsh and dread-pregnant, this manic break in the middle feels strangely positive, even as you know what Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law is doing is 99% definitely morally wrong, even as you know it can’t possibly last. And when it inevitably all falls apart, and the impact knocks us into the long, trying, but still very worthwhile final third of the novel, it makes everything feel so much worse.

The Vegetarian is a very special book. It’s strange and depressing, and reading it somethings actually feels unhealthy, and that’s exactly why I love it so much, and exactly why you might also like it but might end up really hating it. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Posted in Books | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

(2016) The Year in Books – My Brilliant Friend

my-brilliant-friend

The first of Ferrante’s four-part Neapolitan Novels series, My Brilliant Friend is a perceptive, emotionally honest depiction of childhood and adolescence, as well as the closeness and fraught distance of long-term friendship. More specifically, the childhood and adolescence and long-term friendship of its joint-protagonists – narrator Elena, and her close friend Lila – in a tight-knit, poor neighbourhood in post-war Naples. It also wins this year’s award for ‘Best Book With The Absolute Worst Front Cover Honestly What Were They Thinking’.

I say joint-protagonists because while we’re glued to Elena’s perspective throughout – with stretches in the book where Lila doesn’t appear at all – it’s as much a story about Lila as it is about Elena. And while My Brilliant Friend does a wonderful job of depicting the various lives of its dozens of characters, surrounded as they are by the pressures of family, economics, class, and gender divides, the friendship between Elena and Lila is the heart of the novel.

While both Elena and Lila are fiercely intelligent, even as young girls, there’s something different about Lila that marks her as separate – something people recognise the moment they meet her, but can’t quite put into words. Elena is smart and does well academically – so well in fact that, unlike almost everyone else in her neighbourhood she’s given the opportunity of pursuing education beyond primary school (remember: a poor neighbourhood in post-war Naples). But she manages this by strict self-discipline and endless hours of study. Lila, on the other hand – a strange and rough girl; capable of insight and self-confidence Elena finds herself in awe of – effortlessly reads and effortlessly learns and effortlessly shows mastery over any subject she puts her mind to, despite being denied the chance to study.

Or at least everything she does seems effortless to Elena. One of the central focuses of My Brilliant Friend (and its sequel The Story of a New Name) is Elena’s near-deification of Lila as intellectually peerless; effortlessly eloquent and thoughtful. Though she is clearly exceptional in many ways, she’s raised up on a pedestal, and much of Elena’s way of looking at herself and the course of her own life is tangled up with Lila.

She feels guilt over having the opportunity to continue her education while Lila is forced out, but then feels intense jealousy that Lila continues to read and show academic prowess, arguably superior to her own, despite being denied that education. She works hard to succeed and constantly gets the very top grades in her classes, but then feels like an impostor; buoyed up only by hard work, devoid of even a spark of original thinking, whereas it all comes naturally to Lila. And she wants to strike out on her own path – become her own person without constantly thinking how she compares to Lila, but then seems to want nothing more than to best Lila in every aspect of her life.

It’s a friendship formed of long history and genuine affection, of course, but it’s also a source of deep anxiety for Elena. Because Lila is always there in her mind – exceptional and effortless and slightly more than human.

And as the novel progresses (and continues into The Story of a New Name), this image of Lila, devoid of the context of her interiority, increasingly struggles against the reality of her actions and her decisions. Elena expects so much more of Lila than anyone else, and yet Lila isn’t a perfect being born fully formed into limitless possibility, but a human shaped by the confines of her life: her strict family that refuses to let her study, her economic position that trammels her ambitions, her dependence on men in a a rough, male-dominated society, her own stubbornness and anxieties and emotional problems that are only hinted at, rarely explored, but are so important for understanding her.

Amongst many other impressive things (including their exploration of the draining, overbearing role of patriarchy in the lives of the two girls , which I could write a whole post about, and just might (but probably won’t, lets face it)), these are books about trying to understand someone, but being unable to do so. Partly because we can never get access to another person’s interior mind, of course. But also because the baggage of one’s own investment in that person can blind us to how they are a living, breathing person that exists independent of how they make us feel.

Elena’s image of Lila was born of that rough, arrogant, unknowable young girl, with a wide-open future and the ability to do anything. And it barely changes even as Lila’s future narrows and narrows in the face of the reality, and as her actions chafe against Elena’s expectations.

And as well as this, they’re books about how our investment and interpretation of someone close to us can reveal as much, if not more, about ourselves than it ever does about them. We get to know Elena as much by how she thinks about Lila, as by how she thinks about herself. Her expectations out of life and her struggle against the overbearing, depressing presence of her mother, reflected in her distaste at Lila’s settling for her role as woman in a working family. Her anxiety and sense of herself as perpetual imposter – Feeling she lacks genuine worth; always second-best to the coruscating wit and insight of Lila, regardless of how well she does. Twisting and contorting in order to condemn herself, to the point where hard work doesn’t count for anything so long as she’s the one doing it. Where she’s wholly lacking of intelligence and insight despite continually impressing those around her, only it doesn’t count.

My Brilliant Friend is wholly relatable in the best way – not in reflecting a life we directly recognise as similar to our own, but in reflecting an emotional truth we recognise in a life we don’t.

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

(2016) The Year in Books – Things Fall Apart

things-fall-apart

Chinua Achebe – Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart centres around Umuofia – an Igbo village in Nigeria, towards the end of the 19th century, as they deal with the European colonisers newly arrived to the region. Split into sections, it first acclimatises readers to the culture and customs of Umuofia before introducing the European settlers, and exploring the gradually building threat they pose to this now-familiar way of life.

Many critics have already pointed out the obvious parallels in Things Fall Apart to Joseph Conrad’s classic (and terrible (I don’t care what any of you have to say – it’s rubbish)) Heart of Darkness. There Conrad presents Africa as a different word, and black Africans as not only inferior beings, but thoroughly alien ones. And in Things Fall Apart we see similar first encounters from the other side, with very similar reactions: the characters in Things Fall Apart struggle to interpret the lives and humanity of these alien invaders so different from themselves. From the perspective of Umuofia, and especially the novel’s protagonist Okonkwo (a village leader and all around I’m A Big Man Do You Want To Fight Me personality) the Europeans are presented, at least for a time, as unpredictable, wholly unknowable creatures – more akin to alien visitors or a spread of potentially-benign fungus than anything wholly human.

But Things Fall Apart isn’t just a story of conflict between the Igbo people and the European colonisers. It’s also deeply interested in exploring historical Igbo culture, and presenting it in a complex, sympathetic light. Which isn’t to say an unquestioningly positive light – we see the harsh, apparently uncaring nature of many of its rules of law, its abandonment of infants suffering from deformities, and the deeply patriarchal framework that allows Okonkwo to violently beat his wives without consequence for himself (side note: obviously European culture has had to struggle with literally none of these problems, especially not in the late 19th century).

These distatesful aspects of historical Igbo culture aren’t explicitly condemned. Nor is Okonkwo’s constant violence and general awfulness towards various members of his family and the village. There’s a sense of detachment that serves the novel well – instead of simplisticallyjudging these aspects of Igbo culture as immoral, Achebe explores the mindset, the hundreds of years of context that led to these aspects of the culture – the sort of benefit-of-the-doubt exploration of context that white European culture readily grants itself, but often unthinkingly fails to extend to others.

As a result the reader is presented with complexity, both historical and ethical, and not prodded towards a conclusion or neat summing-up. Never is this more true than with its treatment of Okonkwo – instead of crowning him a hero or decrying him as a monster, Achebe invites the reader to explore his character and see how fraught and complicated it is. We see his anger and his self-aggrandizing violence, but at the same time we see his childhood, his deeply-set insecurities, and moments of self-reflection that are at times heartbreaking, despite, and in part because of their sharp brevity: “He remembered his wife’s twin children, whom he has thrown away. What crime have they committed? The earth has decreed that they were an offence on the land and must be destroyed.” [note: upon re-reading I noticed I misremembered, and that this quote is about another, ancillary character. So everything I said about this book is wrong and a lie.]

In other words, Things Fall Apart is not just an antidote to a hundred years of racist, colonial writing that erases the humanity – and the complexity – of the black African cultures. It’s also a deep, empathetic, and often very fraught exploration of both culture and individual character.

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment