Books of the Year 2016, Part Two

Yesterday I revealed my pre-2016 published fiction and 2016 non-fiction books of the year. Today it’s turn the of the 2016 fiction list and what an absolute corker of a year it’s been. (It needed to be to make up for the dire straits that is real life.) I’ve read and reviewed lots of good books so I’ve been very strict for this list and only included books I thought were superb and would happily re-read again and again. Click on the book covers to take you to my full reviews.

4627425830The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

If you’ve read my review or follow me on Twitter, it’ll be no surprise that this is my Book of the Year. Set over the course of a year, newly widowed Cora Seabourne decamps from London to Essex with her companion, Martha, and her withdrawn, unusual son, Francis. There she encounters two things which will change her life: the legend of the Essex Serpent, apparently returned and killing man and beast, and local reverend Will Ransome, who’s more modern in his thinking than Cora expects and is quite a match for her intellectually. With themes of science and religion, love and friendship this book is as smart as it is engaging. I didn’t read this book, I lived inside it. Pure joy.

 

41no-ogymgl-_sy344_bo1204203200_The Lesser Bohemians – Eimear McBride

Eily leaves Ireland for London and drama school, determined to lose her virginity. When she does, it’s with Stephen, a relatively famous actor, who she assumes she’ll never see again. Of course it’s only a matter of weeks before she does and, despite the twenty-year age gap – she’s eighteen and he thirty-eight, a relationship, of sorts, begins. Over the course of a year in the 1980s, Eily and Stephen fall in and out of love and Stephen reveals his dark past. Written in a similar staccato, interior style to her debut, McBride places the reader in Eily’s head and we live out the year with her. Superb.

 
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Martin John – Anakana Schofield

Martin John is an ‘inadequate molester’. Exiled to London from Ireland by his mother, following an incident in a dentist’s waiting room, Martin John follows his rituals and circuits to ensure he stays on the right side of the law. But he’s already made a mistake and now Baldy Conscience has stayed too long in John’s house they’ll be consequences. John’s mother’s story is also very interesting, equal parts heartbreaking and disturbing. An unusual subject told in an experimental, circular style, this really does linger long after you’ve finished reading it.

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Under the Visible Life – Kim Echlin

The story of two women, Mahsa Weaver and Katherine Goodnow, who have two things in common: 1) jazz 2) their mixed heritage and the issues which have come with it. Two women who want independence but are prevented from having it in different ways due to their different cultural backgrounds – although all of their issues fall under the banner of patriarchy. Piercingly astute on women’s lives, loves and friendships.

 

 

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Human Acts – Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)

The story of the aftermath of the student uprising in Gwangju, South Korea in 1980. Beginning with ‘The Boy’, Dong-Ho outside the municipal gymnasium, listening to the memorial service for the bodies being brought to the gym for families to identify and moving through a number of narrative voices, including the body of Dong-Ho’s friend, Jeong-dae. Shocking, violent and eyeopening.

 

 

coverMy Name Is Leon – Kit de Waal

Carol is struggling following the birth of her second son, Jake. Tony, Jake’s father has no intention of leaving his long-term partner and family and Byron, nine-year-old Leon’s father, did a runner when he was due to go to court. She has no financial support and is suffering from postnatal depression. When Tina, the neighbour, calls social services, Jake and Leon are taken into care, going together to a foster carer’s house. Leon spends his time looking out for Jake, thinking about the things that happened when he lived with his mum and hoping that his mum will get better and come back for them. Instead, Carol disappears and white baby Jake is adopted. Leon, nine-years-old with light brown skin, is left behind with Maureen, the foster carer, with little hope of anyone offering him a permanent home. Heart breaking and precise, de Waal nails a child’s perspective, writing convincingly about a situation not often covered in literature.

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Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew – Susan Fletcher

1889. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. There we find Jeanne Trabuc, wife of Charles – ‘The Major’ – the warden of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, hospital for the mentally ill. A new patient arrives, an artist by the name of Vincent Van Gogh. Jeanne strikes up a friendship with the artist which becomes a catalyst for her long hidden feelings about her life. A wonderful novel about marriage – how it changes over time, how you can never really know someone even after thirty years – and the power of art to change the way you view the world.

 

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Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun – Sarah Ladipo Manyika

Doctor Morayo Da Silva is approaching her 75th birthday. Former academic, ex-wife of an ambassador, she’s seen the world and lived it all. Now settled in San Francisco living a steady, reliable life…or so she tells us. The multiple narrators of this fascinating tale might not agree. Dr Morayo Da Silva is a wonderful character: a woman in her 70s who’s lived a varied life, unafraid to dress as she pleases, contemplate tattoos, read voraciously and discuss sexuality and how she’s found life as a woman and as a person of colour. A gem.

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The Power – Naomi Alderman

A male academic, living in a matriarchy, writes a book about how women gained power – personally, through an electric current which becomes live in their bodies, and politically. The story follows three women: Roxy, a gangster’s daughter; Margot, a mayor, and Allie, an abused foster daughter, as they overturn their situations and begin to run the world. All of this is documented by a male journalist, Tunde, the first to capture the power on camera. Violence, corruption, sexual and domestic abuse, this is indeed a powerful read.

 

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Eileen – Ottessa Moshfegh

24-year-old Eileen lives at home with her cruel, ex-cop father. She works at the juvenile detention centre where she fancies one of the prison guards who never acknowledges her existence. The week before Christmas, 1964, Rebecca Saint John arrives at the institution to be the first ever director of education. She takes a shine to Eileen and Eileen’s life takes a very dark turn indeed.

 

510ryhmdeel-_sy344_bo1204203200_If You Look for Me, I Am Not Here – Sarayu Srivatsa 

Mallika, Siva’s Amma, becomes pregnant with twins: a boy and a girl. The girl, Tara, arrives with the umbilical cord still around her neck and dies moments later. The boy, Siva, survives. But Mallika wanted a girl and her grief for Tara leads her to reject Siva and accuse her husband of killing Tara. Brought up as a boy by his father and grandmother and a girl by his mother, Siva spends his childhood and adolescence questioning whether he is a boy or a girl. His story is interwoven with that of George Gibbs, an Englishman who used to live in their house. Dealing with pertinent issues of gender through interwoven stories of two cultures, the tales are completely engrossing and the writing’s both inventive and precise.

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Dodge and Burn – Seraphina Madsen

An exercise in imagination that takes the reader on a road trip across the west of the USA and the possibilities of experimental fiction. Framed by news reports of a missing American heiress, Eugenie Lund, the story of her childhood and subsequent trip is told mostly through her notebooks. Virtually imprisoned as part of a social experiment by Dr Vargas, Lund’s childhood was an unusual one which ended when her sister disappeared. This is the story of her search for Camille. A welcome addition to the cult fiction genre, reclaiming something from generations of male writers. Hurrah!

In the Media: October 2016, Part Two

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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A woman didn’t win The Man Booker Prize this year but there was still some interesting coverage of the prize and the shortlisted writers:

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The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:

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The interviews/profiles:

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The regular columnists:

Book Lists for All Humans #5

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It’s been a while…not because there haven’t been lists published that weren’t gender balanced, I’m sure there have been, more because while I’m not compiling In the Media, I’m not in my media Twitter feed and so I’m not seeing them. However, I was on the Guardian website this afternoon and they’d published a new ‘Top 10 books’ list. DBC Pierre deserves some sort of award for producing the whitest, most male list I’ve seen so far. Apparently, women/people of colour don’t write books that writers should read. Be told people, only white men know how to write.

Here’s my alternative list, please feel free to suggest your own additions/alternatives in the comments:

To create a setting that feels as though it really exists: The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

To see complex characters, whose behaviour raises questions about morality, in action: Waking Lions – Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (translated by Sondra Silverston)

To write successfully from a child’s point-of-view: My Name Is Leon – Kit de Waal

To manage a complex structure based on a lunar cycle and as good as any box set: The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton

To change point-of-view in every chapter, including that of a dead body, and detail some of the atrocities of which humans are capable: Human Acts – Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)

To incorporate your own life and letters into fiction/essay/critique: I Love Dick – Chris Kraus

To bring a historical character to life: Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel

To write a coming-of-age story in fragmented sentences: A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing – Eimear McBride

To write a metafictional account of a massacre: The Gypsy Goddess – Meena Kandasamy

To create an unreliable, first person narrator: The Private Life of Mrs Sharma – Ratika Kapur

 

Links are to my reviews.

Book Lists for All Humans #1

This morning, the Independent ran a book list, ‘13 books everyone should read‘. It popped up on my Twitter feed when someone I follow (a white male) tweeted it with the words, ’13/13 men, 13/13 white. Seriously?’ Clicking the link led to the discovery that the list was voted for by reddit users. My only surprise on discovering this was that House of Leaves wasn’t one of the books on the list.

What isn’t a surprise though is that yet another book list is all-male and all-white. It happens a lot in the media. Last year I got into a debate on Twitter as to whether those writers who selected 10 books related to whichever subject their latest work is on for The Guardian should be given guidelines stating/advising/suggesting they consider a diverse list. Someone (a white male) argued that because they were personal choices they should be allowed to reflect that person’s taste. A point that would be perfectly valid if structural inequality didn’t exist and the majority of people writing these lists weren’t white. At that time, Sarah Jasmon, author of The Summer of Secrets, counteracted the largely male, all-white, list of Top Ten Summers in Fiction.

I’ve long been riled by this situation: when I used to include lists in In the Media, I spent a disproportionate amount of time checking whether the lists were gender balanced. Most were not. Include the balance of white to brown writers and there would’ve been barely any lists left. Every time one appears, I think I should counteract it with an all-female list of writers of a variety of skin tones and today I’m riled enough that I’m doing just that.

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Welcome to the first in a series! Here’s my take on 13 Books Everyone Should Read. I’m aware there’s many more I could’ve chosen so please, leave your suggestions in the comments. I’m hoping this will become an series of excellent crowdsourced book recommendations. Then, maybe, the media might just have a word with itself and compile lists reflective of the actual world rather than its own narrow one.

Citizen – Claudia Rankine

To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf

The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison

Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronté

Americanah – Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

Human Acts – Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)

The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter

Quicksand and Passing – Nella Larsen

Geek Love – Katherine Dunn

Push – Sapphire

I Love Dick – Chris Kraus

Trumpet – Jackie Kay

(Links are to my reviews.)

In the Media, May 2016, Part Three

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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Books in translation have been having a moment following Han Kang and translator Deborah Smith winning the Man Booker International Prize for The Vegetarian. They wrote, ‘It is fascinating to ponder the possibili­ties of language‘ for The Guardian; Charles Montgomery wrote, ‘The Triumph of Han Kang and the Rise of Women’s Writing in Korea‘ in The Los Angeles Review of Books; Sophie Hughes wrote, ‘On the Joyful Tears of a Translator‘ on Literary Hub. Judith Vonberg writes, ‘Translated fiction is not a genre. Why do bookshops tell us it is?‘ in The New Statesman and Anjali Enjeti asks, ‘Do Americans Hate Foreign Fiction‘ on Literary Hub

‘The abiding memory of my childhood is being unwelcome wherever we went’… Nina Stibbe.

The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:

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The interviews/profiles:

Tracey Thorn photographed by Suki Dhanda for the Observer New Review

The regular columnists:

In the Media, March 2016, part one

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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It’s Mothers’ Day in the UK today, so inevitably there’s been lots of writing about mothers – being one, having one, not having one – this week. Contributors including Jackie Kay, Jeanette Winterson and Helen Simpson wrote about ‘… my mother before I knew her‘ inspired by Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘Before You Were Mine’ in The Guardian; Liz Dashwood asks, ‘What do I *really* want for Mother’s Day?‘ on The Pool; Rivka Galchen talked about ‘The Only Thing I Envy Men‘ in The New Yorker; Robyn Wilder wrote, ‘Maternity leave: the reality versus the expectations‘, Emily Eades wrote, ‘Becoming a mother without your own mother to rely on‘ and Sinéad Gleeson wrote, ‘Mothers, and the pram-in-the-hall problem‘ all on The Pool (Do follow the link to the Anne Enright clip on that last piece. Spot on and very funny); Susan Briante wrote, ‘Mother Is Marxist‘ on Guernica; Kate Townshend asked, ‘Is it possible for a mother and daughter to be *too* close?‘, Samira Shackle said, ‘Returning to my mother’s homeland helped me to make sense of my place in the world‘, Cathy Rentzenbrink said, ‘There is no such thing as a smug mother, we’re all terrified and struggling‘ and Rosalind Powell wrote, ‘I didn’t give birth, but I became a mother‘ all on The Pool; Sarah Turner wrote, ‘Mother’s Day Without Mum‘ on The Unmumsy Mum

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Sadly, Louise Rennison died this week. Philip Ardagh wrote, ‘My Hero: Louise Rennison‘ in The Guardian. Shannon Maughan wrote her obituary for Publishers Weekly.

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The woman with the most coverage this fortnight is Sanjida Kay with ‘Where’s the Diversity in Grip-Lit?‘ on The Asian Writer; ‘on Switching Genres‘ on The Literary Sofa, and ‘Fairytales‘ on Women Writers, Women’s Books

Exciting news as forthcoming novels from Jilly Cooper, Zadie Smith and Ali Smith were announced this fortnight.

And I’ve added Kaushana Cauley’s new Intersections column for Catapult to the regulars list at the bottom of the links. It’s well worth a read.

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The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

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Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:

Author Petina Gappah 'brilliantly exposes the gap between rich and poor.'

The interviews:

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The regular columnists:

In the Media, February 2016, part two

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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On Friday, the death of Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird was announced. Obituaries followed from Ed Pilkington and Matthew Teague in The Guardian; Eric Hamburger also in The Guardian; Casey N. Cep in The New Yorker, and The Irish Times, and appraisals of her work from Michiko Kakutani, ‘In Harper Lee’s Novels, a Loss of Innocence as Children and Again as Adults‘ in the New York Times; Sarah Churchwell, ‘Harper Lee: author battled to reconcile racial justice with a racially unjust society‘ and Elaine Showalter, ‘Harper Lee: an American novelist deserving of serious attention‘ both in The Guardian; Michelle Dean, ‘Did Go Set a Watchman spoil Harper Lee’s literary legacy?‘ in The Guardian; Katy Waldman, ‘What Is Harper Lee’s Legacy After Go Set a Watchman?‘ on Slate, and Alex Clark, ‘Why Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird endures to tell its tale of radical change‘ in The Observer

You might have heard that a fortnight ago Beyoncé released a new song ‘Formation’ which she went on to perform at the SuperBowl. Lots of people had lots to say about it. LaSha wrote, ‘Kendrick Lamar won’t face backlash like Beyoncé: Socially conscious art, sexual expression and the policing of black women’s politics‘, Priscilla Ward wrote, ‘White Beyoncé haters don’t get it: “Formation” isn’t “race-baiting” — but it is unapologetically about race‘ both on Salon; Banseka Kayembe wrote, ‘Beyonce Gets Political: Here’s Why it Matters‘ on the Huffington Post; Shantrelle Lewis wrote, ‘“Formation” Exploits New Orleans’ Trauma‘ on Slate; Nikita Richardson did ‘A Deep Dive into the Important, Unapologetic Blackness of Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’‘ on Hello Giggles; Suzanne Moore said, ‘Black Pride at the Super Bowl? Beyoncé embodies a new political moment‘ in The Guardian; The Pool asked, ‘Four women on what Beyoncé’s Formation means to them‘, and Anna Leszkiewicz said, ‘Beyoncé and #BlackLivesMatter: why “Formation” is her most radical release to date‘ in the New Statesman.

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Last weekend was Valentine’s Day; there was plenty of writing around that too. Emma Dowling wrote, ‘Love’s Labour’s Cost: The Political Economy of Intimacy‘ on Verso Books; Eleanor Franzén wrote ‘V Daze‘ on Elle Thinks; Eileen Myles, ‘on the Excruciating Pain of Waiting for Love‘ and Heather Haverilesky, ‘What Romance Really Means After 10 Years of Marriage‘ on The Cut; Marie Phillips wrote, ‘What I learnt from a year of being in love‘ and Emer O’Toole shared, ‘The Rules, and how I fell in love‘ both on The Pool; Lauren Duca asked, ‘Is There Such a Thing As a Feminist Marriage Proposal?‘, Laura June revealed, ‘What I Thought Romance Meant, Age 12–Present‘ and Meaghan O’Connell told us, ‘Getting Married in One Week Was the Most Romantic Thing I Ever Did‘ all in The Cut; Emma Flowers wrote, ‘Finding, Nearly Losing and Finally Building Love Across Two Genders‘ on the Huffington Post; Heidi Julavits on ‘My High-School Boyfriend, the Con Artist‘ in The Cut; Tiffany Yannetta wrote, ‘Lights, Camera, Love‘ on the history of dating shows on Racked, and Alana Massey said, ‘Tinder Is the New Meet-Cute‘ in The Cut.

Congratulations to Ríona Judge McCormack who won the inaugural Galley Beggar Press short story competition with ‘Blackburn‘. And The Stella Prize announced its 12 book longlist for 2016.

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The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

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Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

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Film, Television, Music, Art, Fashion and Sport:

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The interviews:

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The regular columnists:

In the Media: February 2016, Part One

In the media is a fortnightly round-up of features written by, about or containing female writers that have appeared during the previous fortnight and I think are insightful, interesting and/or thought provoking. Linking to them is not necessarily a sign that I agree with everything that’s said but it’s definitely an indication that they’ve made me think. I’m using the term ‘media’ to include social media, so links to blog posts as well as traditional media are likely and the categories used are a guide, not definitives.

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This fortnight, Frances Hardinge became the first children’s author to win the Costa Book of the Year Award since Philip Pullman in 2001. Hardinge’s interviewed in The Guardian. Aria Akbar in The Independent used Hardinge’s win to remind us that adults can and do read children’s books too, ‘Here’s hoping this ‘moment’ for children’s fiction leads to a golden age‘ while Caroline O’Donoghue asked, ‘Why is it so easy to fall in love with children’s books?‘ on The Pool.

The other bookish talking point has been around those titles Marion Keyes named ‘Grip-Lit’ i.e. so gripping you don’t want to stop turning the pages. Alexandra Heminsley writes, ‘Grip-lit, and how the women in crime fiction got interesting‘ on The Pool, while Sophie Hannah says, ‘Grip-lit? Psychological thrillers were around long before Gone Girl‘ in The Guardian.

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The best of the rest:

On or about books/writers/language:

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Personal essays/memoir:

Feminism:

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Society and Politics:

Film, Television, Music, Art and Fashion:

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The interviews:

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The regular columnists:

‘Should I live in this world which is mingled with such violence and such beauty?’ Han Kang at Foyles, Charing Cross Road

On Wednesday I travelled to London for one of Han Kang’s few UK appearances. In the event space at the top of the Foyles’ flagship store, Kang spoke for over an hour with Philippe Sands, supported by her translator Yunjung Sun Kim. It was a fascinating discussion.

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Sands began by asking Kang to explain a bit about her latest novel just published in English (brilliantly translated by Deborah Smith) Human Acts.

It’s about Gwangju in 1980 when an event took place which some refer to as an uprising and others a massacre. There was a military coup, power was seized and demonstrations took place. The response to these demonstrations was mass shootings. The troops then retreated for ten days, during which there was civilian autonomy. At the end of those ten days, the army returned with tanks.

He then asked Kang about the personal nature of the book for her.

She said she was born in Gwangju in 1970 and lived there until she was nine years and two months old when her family moved to Seoul. It was a coincidence they left before the uprising took place. ‘We were not hurt because we were not there.’ She said they were left with survivors’ guilt.

Photobooks were circulated secretly to let survivors know the truth about the dead. The books contained photographs of corpses. ‘My parents wanted to protect me from that book.’ But Kang looked at one in her parents’ house. ‘I was scared.’ If she’d been older, she might have been filled with rage and hatred but at ten, it left her scared of human cruelty. She said it raised two riddles for her: the first was ‘How can human beings be so violent?’ and the second, ‘How could people do something against extreme violence?’ She said these riddles were ‘…imprinted on my mind. A defining experience for me.’

Sands pushed her on the building that Dong-Ho, the main character lives in, being the building Kang and her family lived in and Dong-Ho himself being a boy she knew but Kang sidestepped the question telling us that the book’s 80% fact, 20% fiction. It was clear throughout the interview that the massacre and it’s affect on her is a painful subject to discuss.

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At this point there was a reading, taken from the editor’s chapter [chapter three] when the editor goes to see a theatre production of a script that was very heavily censored by the authorities. Deborah Smith came onstage to read the English translation which was followed by Han Kang reading the same section in Korean. It was really interesting to hear a section read by the writer in the original language.

Sands then asked what caused Kang to choose this subject and why she chose to treat it in this form.

She referred again to the two riddles. They were her internal motivation. ‘I wanted to figure out why I’m struggling to embrace human beings.’ She said she had to figure out the answers to her questions or she couldn’t go anywhere with her writing.

Her external motivation was the social cleansing which took place in the Yongsan area of Seoul in 2009. Five residents and one police officer died when a fire started in a building where people were protesting against the eviction of the residents to make way for developers. She said she was watching the news in a ‘warm and comfortable’ room. ‘I bet it’s Gwangju,’ she said. ‘I realised Gwangju is all around us.’

Who are you writing the book for? Sands asked.

Kang said she mostly started to write the book because of her internal questions. She began to collect materials and realised there was no room for her self-consciousness in the novel. ‘I was not important anymore. I wanted to lend my life to them. To the people who were killed there.’

She did more research, reading about Bosnia and Auschwitz. She said she felt a threat that she’d lose all her trust in mankind.

The change in her thinking came when she read a diary entry by a civilian killed on the last night of the massacre. A high school teacher in the civilian militia’s provincial office. She said it read like a prayer and led to her wanting to reach human dignity even though she started the novel from human violence.

She said of the boy at the centre of the novel: ‘Sometimes he was dragging me towards the second riddle’ and of the book: ‘That process has transformed me’. She talked of a moment in the mother’s chapter of the book [the one that I found most difficult to read] where the boy’s holding his mother’s hand and he leads her to the flowers on the brighter side of the road. ‘This book is just for the boy. The boy has written this novel, not me.’

Sands commented that the book is an incredibly brutal journey. How was it written and what was Kang’s decision-making process in writing the opening?

She talked about the opening being in the darkest place and the boy wanting to light candles. He covers the body with white sheets and then there’s the lighting of candles again. ‘It looks brutal…but I believe there are chords of this warming.’ She said in the second chapter [when the boy’s friend’s body is laid in a pile of corpses and he tells us about his life] that the boy’s life was dignified. ‘The face of human dignity’ is there, she said.

Sands asked her what she was hoping to achieve and the techniques she used in creating the novel.

‘I felt this was the only way to talk about the boy’s life and death.’

She said she used the second person perspective because ‘You is someone who is present’ and she wanted the boy to be present. He comes back throughout the book because the survivors want to remember him; they call him to the present. [The book ends in 2013.] She said readers could also assemble the broken moments of the boys last days and hours through the survivors’ stories. ‘The boy is coming to the present. That’s what I wanted.’

She didn’t know how to structure the novel. She said she was ‘lost’ while researching until she found the citizen’s diary and then she arranged it into six chapters. She didn’t restructure again after that. She said sometimes she’s confident in arranging chapters, ‘Sometimes I get lost’.

How was the book received in South Korea? asked Sands.

It was well received. ‘More than I expected. Maybe they wanted to remember this massacre for a long time. They didn’t want to erase these memories.’ Human Acts was on the bestseller list for a year in South Korea.

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The discussion was then opened up to questions from the audience.

Where there people who didn’t want the stories to be told?

Kang said that so many years had passed so she didn’t have to interview people. ‘I didn’t have to hurt anyone.’ She said that painful testimonies had already been given. She repeated, ‘I didn’t hurt anyone’ two more times.

Has the novel been published in other countries and what was the response?

She mentioned the Netherlands and France in the future. She said it’s weird to meet readers in the UK, ‘It’s a very personal book of mine’ but that we share human ideas.

She was asked specifically about publication in China. ‘Maybe it’s impossible.’ She said she’s spoken to the Chinese publisher but because the book deals with massacre and censorship it might not be possible to publish it.

How much of the truth about Gwangju has come out?

In the 1980s information was destroyed. The event was isolated. In 1997 it was memorialised. The current regime doesn’t want to remember though.

The discussion leads on to the single textbook the current regime is proposing. Kang said it’s concerning that no one knows who’s going to write it.

Sands commented that it would be fantastic to have Human Acts on the curriculum.

‘Some people have talked about it! I hoped many students could read this novel. I did my best to promote this book as much as I could.’

She said she’s been to schools to talk about the book and the massacre. 15-year-olds in South Korea were quite ignorant about it. She said the events in the book frightened them but they were relieved that they’d realised the truth.

Did Gwangju affect her other novel (The Vegetarian)?

She said they’re both a personal or inner conflict about humans.

Why did it take so long to write about Gwangju?

She said she revised some stories she wrote in her early 20s and there was human violence in them. The Vegetarian is about whether it’s possible to be perfectly innocent in this violent world, which is why the central character wants to become a plant. ‘The two books are intertwined. It’s like a pair.’

‘Writing is questioning for me.’ The question that she’s asking in Human Acts is ‘Should I live in this world which is mingled with such violence and such beauty?’ She said, ‘I lost my trust to human beings since I looked at the photobook. How can I embrace human beings?’

Sands asked whether she had any more of an answer as to how humans can inflict such violence on each other?

Kang replied that Human Acts is also very anti-human acts. She said she read a piece by a Korean essayist who was on a bus when war broke out, looking at the life around him. He realised that he was crying and came to the conclusion, ‘Maybe I love human beings’.

While writing the novel, ‘I came to thinking about my pain’. She said that readers might do the same as they’re reading. Maybe we feel pain about human atrocity and maybe this is the key to preserving human dignity. Maybe we love human beings.

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At this point Sands invited Deborah Smith back to the stage to discuss the process of translating the book. How? he asked.

‘It was a hell of a challenge. The language will allow you to do things in Korean you can’t do in English.’ In Korean you don’t need to state the subject all the time. The book moves ‘swiftly and subtly…between the individuals…and then pans out to a…national, political, social level. The lack of a stated subject allows the we and the I to blend together.’ This is disorientating but effective.

Sands asked about the exchange between Kang and Smith.

Smith said that she translated the whole thing and then Max Porter edited that draft. Kang then read that draft meticulously, picking up mistakes in the subtext and making incredibly detailed notes for Smith. These notes included the historical context and Kang’s inspirations, intentions and stylistic decisions. Smith then returned to the translation and reworked it.

Smith said that for Human Acts Kang had to explain the context and the dialects.

‘I really enjoyed exchanging emails,’ Kang added.

The event had to end there as it had run well over time. It was an incredible evening. The audience was rapt with attention, partly because Kang is so softly spoken but also because of the nature of the discussion. It was a privilege to be there.

If you’re interesting in knowing more about the process of translating Human Acts, Deborah Smith has written an excellent essay published in Asymptote.

Human Acts – Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)

Last January, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was published in English garnering critical acclaim from the broadsheet press and bloggers alike, including this one: I included it in my Books of 2015 list. The tale of a woman who became a vegetarian despite cultural stigma leading to the breakdown of her marriage and family relations before the deterioration of her mental and physical self, it’s an unusual book and one which images from linger long after reading.

On the surface Human Acts appears to be more straightforward. It’s the story of the aftermath of the student uprising in Gwangju, South Korea in 1980. It begins with ‘The Boy’, Dong-Ho outside the municipal gymnasium. He’s listening to the memorial service for the bodies being brought to the gym for families to identify. After the service, he returns inside to continue helping those who arrive looking for missing friends and relatives. Kang makes this section all the more effective by narrating it in second person:

When you first saw her, she was still recognisably a smallish woman in her late teens or early twenties; now, her decomposing body has bloated to the size of a grown man. Every time you pull back the cloth for someone who has come to find a daughter or younger sister, the sheer rate of decomposition stuns you. Stab wounds slash down from her forehead to her left eye, her cheekbone to her jaw, her left breast to her armpit, gaping gashes where the raw flesh shows through. The right side of her skull has completely caved in, seemingly the work of a club, and the meat of her brain is visible.

We soon learn that Dong-Ho initially came to the gym to search for his own friend but ended up becoming part of the team on realising how chronically understaffed they were. By this point, all the morgues were full so the dead were being brought straight to the gym.

The second section moves to the voice of Dong-Ho’s friend, Jeong-dae:

Our bodies are piled on top of each other in the shape of a cross.

The body of a man I don’t know has been thrown across my stomach at a ninety-degree angle, face up, and on top of him a boy, older than me, tall enough that the crook of his knees press down onto my bare feet. The boy’s hair brushed my face. I was able to see all of that because I was still stuck fast to my body then.

His soul starts to leave his body as it begins to rot, eventually leaving it altogether when soldiers return and set fire to the pile of corpses. It’s a section that sounds like it shouldn’t work but it’s deeply affecting. Kang contrasts Jeong-dae’s descriptions of the pile of bodies and its surroundings with memories of his sister whom he also knows is dead.

The novel progresses through sections told by an editor in 1985, a prisoner in 1990, a factory girl in 2002, Dong-Ho’s mother in 2010 and ‘the writer’ in 2013. Through them the events of the uprising and its brutal suppression are shown. Dong-Ho’s personal story is central to Kang’s narrative; as it unravels, some shocking betrayals are revealed. What also connects these strands is the violence of the state. The editor, who is Kim Eun-sook, the woman who convinced Dong-ho to stay and help in the municipal gymnasium, tells her part of the story through the seven slaps she was given by an interrogator. Kang subjects the reader to this violence suddenly. It’s repeatedly shocking, not only due to the brutality of it but also because of the way in which it’s juxtaposed with calmer passages.

It’s difficult to comment on a translation when you don’t speak the original language but what’s clear is that Smith has made each voice consistently distinct, a challenging task for any writer without the addition of faithfully translating another’s words. The prose is sharp, brutal and affecting.

What Human Acts has in common with The Vegetarian is a similarity in structure, a story told from multiple points of view, and Kang’s offbeat way of viewing the world: she comes at this story from unusual perspectives and it’s all the better for it. Human Acts is a triumph.

 

If you’re in London next week, Han Kang is making two appearances. The first is at the Free Word Centre on Monday 11th where she’ll be interviewed by Susie Orbach. The second is at Foyles Charing Cross Road where she’ll be interviewed by Philippe Sands. If you can’t make either, I’ll be at the latter and will be blogging about the event afterwards.

 

Thanks to Deborah Smith for the review copy.