2022 Honourable Mentions: Five Superb Short Story Collections

Last week, I released a post on My Best Books of 2022; books that gave me much joy this year and would heartily recommend. As I reflected on my reading, I noticed that I had read quite a few short story collections in 2022, certainly more than in previous years. Two of them – Tess Slesinger’s Time: The Present and Tove Ditlevsen’s The Trouble with Happiness – made it to my year end list. But there were five collections that despite not making the cut were still great.

This post is to highlight those five short story collections, sort of my ‘honourable mentions’ if you will (You can click on the links for detailed reviews)…

WE ARE FOR THE DARK by Robert Aickman & Elizabeth Jane Howard

We Are for the Dark is a wonderful collection of ghost stories written by both Robert Aickman and his lover at that time, Elizabeth Jane Howard (of The Cazalet Chronicles fame). First published by Cape in the autumn of 1951, it is a collection of 6 stories, 3 stories written by each. However, at the time, the stories were not individually credited and were presented as a collaboration between the two authors.

The best among these is Elizabeth Jane Howard’s ‘Three Miles Up’ -a perfectly paced, chilling story set on a boating trip through the canals of England; one where an atmosphere of menace and doom unfurls like a blanket over its characters as they navigate an alien canal, until it opens out into an ending that is truly terrifying. Click on the title for a more detailed write-up.

A POSTCARD FOR ANNIE by Ida Jessen (tr. from Danish by Martin Aitken)

A Postcard for Annie is a quiet, exquisite collection of short stories of ordinary lives; the highs and lows of marriage and family life told in lucid, restrained prose suffused with great emotional depth.

The first piece titled “An Excursion” is a beautiful story of a marriage, of how it changes people, of the ties that bind couples despite their differences, while “December is a Cruel Month” is a heartbreaking story on grief, loss, the tender and often tense relationships between parents and their children. In an “An Argument”, a married woman, as the title suggests, argues with her husband on how the physical intimacy between them has deteriorated, while “In My Hometown”, the last story in the collection, is a short piece told in the first person about village secrets, the private lives that people lead and how we don’t know people as well as we think we do.

Each of the six tales is drenched with a quiet beauty, marked by the author’s penetrating gaze into her characters’ outer lives and their innermost feelings.

ART IN NATURE by Tove Jansson (tr. from Swedish by Thomas Teal)

Art in Nature by Tove Jansson is a beautiful, beguiling collection comprising 11 short stories of art, ambition, loneliness, unusual relationships and family.

How we perceive art is an individual experience and one of the cornerstones of the first and titular story of the collection, while one of my favourites “The Cartoonist” is a wonderful, unsettling piece on the price of ambition and the perils associated with the commercialization of art.

The “Flower Child” is a dreamlike, other-worldly tale of loneliness and alienation while nostalgia for home, fractured relationships between siblings and the struggle to blend in with the crowd forms the essence of the story “A Memory of the New World.” A “Sense of Time” is a disorienting tale of losing your bearings where the line between dreams and reality gets blurred, while in “Locomotives” a draughtsman’s obsession with drawing trains provides a sinister twist to a love story.

The stories told in a simple, lucid and arresting style are often dark and disquieting but also drenched with wisdom, beautifully capturing the creative process.

DANCE MOVE by Wendy Erskine

Dance Move is a wonderful collection of short stories set mostly in Belfast; eleven tales of ordinary lives written with warmth, compassion and Erskine’s keen insight into human nature.

Typically, when we talk about short story collections, there are always some stories which really stand out, while some others fade away from the memory quickly. What’s great about Dance Move though is that there’s something memorable about each of the stories, although I do have my favourites.

The first, “Mathematics”, is a superbly penned tale of abandonment, unlikely bonds, and how our past can define the way we live the present, where Roberta, a cleaning woman, comes across an abandoned child in a room she is cleaning. One of my favourite stories, “Cell”, is a dark, devastating tale of control, imprisonment and neglect in communal settings fuelled by shaky political activism; while “Golem” is another excellent tale of mismatched relationships, of alternate lives that could have been lived.

Erskine’s storytelling is sublime, very down-to-earth, and each story is written with such tenderness and compassion. With her sensitive portrayal of fraught lives, she understands the psyche of her characters and is able to convey multitudes in a short space in her distinct expressive style (“What happened next, remembered so many times, is burnished and glittering and perfumed”). In a nutshell, Dance Move is a great collection, one I would whole-heartedly recommend.

CURSED BUNNY by Bora Chung (tr. from Korean by Anton Hur)

Cursed Bunny is a terrific collection of ten stories that merge the genres of horror, science fiction, magical realism and dream logic to explore a wide variety of themes that are possibly a commentary on the ills of Korean society, but which could simply be applied to any society where patriarchy and greed rules the roost.

“The Embodiment” is a disturbing tale of prospective motherhood, single parenting and how the idea of a family unit is heavily defined by conventional mores, while the titular story “Cursed Bunny” is a story within a story, a wonderful tale on the evils of capitalism which bolster greed and unfair business practices. Another favourite of mine is the story called “Snare”, a chilling, frightening tale of the gruesome aftermath of avarice. While a later story “Scars” is a violent, disquieting tale of imprisonment, the illusory notion of freedom and the price one has to pay for it.

The stories in Cursed Bunny are surreal, visceral and quite unlike anything I’ve read before, but they come with a unique, interior logic that works.

A Month of Reading – September 2022

September was an excellent reading month in terms of quality. I managed six books in all – a mix of early 20th century literature, translated lit, a biography, a short story collection, a Booker Prize longlisted title, and of course, the eighth book from Richardson’s Pilgrimage series – The Trap – for #PilgrimageTogether.  

So, without further ado, here are the books…For detailed reviews on the first five you can click on the links.

THE PACHINKO PARLOUR by Elisa Shua Dusapin (Translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins)

Set in Tokyo during a sultry summer, The Pachinko Parlour is an atmospheric, haunting tale of loneliness, identity, connection and the all-pervading sense of ambiguity felt by people whose lives are at crossroads.

Our narrator is Claire, a young woman in her late twenties, who has arrived in Tokyo to spend the summer with her maternal grandparents. Claire’s grandparents are Korean, but were forced to flee to Japan in 1952 when Korea was embroiled in a civil war. Having made a life for themselves in Japan, they haven’t visited Korea since. For Claire this particular vacation in Tokyo is loaded with a mission. She is intent on making the trip with her grandparents to Korea, so that they can revisit their roots, and yet she is gripped by a sense that her grandparents are ambivalent. 

For the most part, Claire is by herself, the hours stretched empty before her. On other days, Claire visits the home of ten-year old Mieko whose mother, Henriette, has employed her to teach the girl some French.  Claire and Mieko develop a close but fragile bond as both seek to connect and belong in their own way.

The Pachinko Parlour, then, is a lyrical meditation on identity and the need to belong, an exploration of displacement both physically and figuratively, and the loneliness we feel within our own families. Delicate, elegantly written and drenched with a tinge of melancholia, Dusapin’s prose displays her signature restraint and poise making The Pachinko Parlour a pretty irresistible read.  

I USED TO LIVE HERE ONCE: THE HAUNTED LIFE OF JEAN RHYS by Miranda Seymour

I Used to Live Here Once by Miranda Seymour is a superb, immersive and moving biography of the incredibly talented Jean Rhys chronicling her turbulent life right from her early years in Dominica which were to haunt her for the rest of her life to remote Devon where she spent year final years; the highs and lows of her writing career, catapulting her from obscurity to international renown; how writing was a vital force in her life, an anchor when all else around her was in shambles.

Seymour’s biography is a meticulously researched, wonderfully written, engrossing biography painting a vivid picture of a proud, brilliant, highly volatile but tremendously talented writer. Rhys had to battle many a crisis but she had the iron will and capacity to somehow bounce back; unlike the archetypical ‘Rhys woman’ she was never a victim but a resourceful woman who dug deep to forge ahead. Moreover, I liked how Seymour provided context to each of Rhys’s novels and some of her finest stories which often drew on the rich material that marked her life.

CURSED BUNNY by Bora Chung (Translated from the Korean by Anton Hur)

Cursed Bunny is a terrific collection of ten stories that merge the genres of horror, science fiction, magical realism and dream logic to explore a wide variety of themes that are possibly a commentary on the ills of Korean society, but which could simply be applied to any society where patriarchy and greed rules the roost.

“The Embodiment” is a disturbing tale of prospective motherhood, single parenting and how the idea of a family unit is heavily defined by conventional mores, while the titular story “Cursed Bunny” is a story within a story, a wonderful tale on the evils of capitalism which bolster greed and unfair business practices. Another favourite of mine is the story called “Snare”, a chilling, frightening tale of the gruesome aftermath of avarice. While a later story “Scars” is a violent, disquieting tale of imprisonment, the illusory notion of freedom and the price one has to pay for it.

The stories in Cursed Bunny are surreal, visceral and quite unlike anything I’ve read before, but they come with a unique, interior logic that works. 

SOMETHING IN DISGUISE by Elizabeth Jane Howard  

Something in Disguise is a sad, chilling, darkly funny tale of loneliness within relationships told with Howard’s consummate ease and style. The book opens with a marriage – Alice, the meek daughter of Colonel Herbert Browne-Lacey, is to wed a well-to-do conservative chap, Leslie Mount, a man who she met on one of her recent holidays.

The Colonel has been married thrice – Alice is his daughter from his first marriage. His third and current wife, May, also has two children from an earlier marriage; adults in their early 20s – Oliver and Elizabeth. Oliver and Elizabeth can’t stand their stepfather – the Colonel is an insufferable bore, one of those dry, old-fashioned men who have a set, unimaginative way of living and thinking, often imposing their demands on women. With May not good at managing the house, that burden always fell on Alice, but now with Alice starting the next chapter in her life, who is going to fill her shoes?

Oliver particularly detests the Colonel, always pouncing on any opportunity to needle him, and immediately convinces Elizabeth to come live with him at their Lincoln street flat in London, a considerably attractive proposition as opposed to being stuck forever at Monk’s Close, a monstrosity of a house in the countryside where the Colonel and May reside. That’s the basic set-up but as the novel progresses, there’s a love story that unfolds, while at the same time a sense of claustrophobia sharpens as some sinister happenings begin to come to the fore.

Something in Disguise, then, is a brilliant tale of ‘domestic horror’ – the palpable feeling of being trapped; signals of impending doom that evoke a mood of creeping dread in the reader. The final pages, particularly, heighten this effect making this a novel that will linger in the mind for a while.

TRUST by Hernan Diaz  

Set in early 20th century New York, Trust by Hernan Diaz is a cleverly constructed, fascinating tale of money, deception, power and the ultimate question of who controls the narrative.

The novel is made up of four sections each providing a different point of view – the first section called “Bonds” is a novel written by a forgotten author Harold Vanner thatnarrates the story of Benjamin Rask whose astounding success on Wall Street and the stock markets during the heydays of the 1920s, transforms him into one of the richest men in the world. The second section is an autobiography by Andrew Bevel, and it quickly becomes clear that Benjamin Rask is a fictional version of Andrew Bevel himself. The biggest anomaly in both the accounts is the depiction of Mildred Bevel (Helen Rask in Vanner’s novel), who remains an enigma, all the more because there are marked differences in how her personality and her circumstances have been highlighted by both men. Is the fictional woman real or is the real woman a figment of the imagination?

The third section focuses on Ida Partenza, an Italian immigrant, employed as Bevel’s secretary chiefly to type out his autobiography as per instructions given by him personally, and she is hell bent on discovering the truth about Mildred Bevel, while in fourth section titled “Futures”, we hear from Mildred Bevel herself.

While Trust, in a way, is a commentary on the excesses of Wall Street, itis really a novel about how stories are told (what is revealed, hidden, enhanced or diluted), how viewpoints often differ and how power can warp reality and ultimately influence the narrative.

THE TRAP (PILGRIMAGE 3) by Dorothy Richardson

The Trap is the eighth installment in Dorothy Richardson’s extraordinary Pilgrimage cycle of novels, afterPointed Roofs, Backwater, Honeycomb, The Tunnel, Interim, Deadlock and Revolving Lights.

In The Trap, we once again see Miriam in a different environment. While the last four books saw her lodging at Mrs Bailey’s on Tansley Street with a room of her own, in The Trap we see Miriam change her lodgings and share a room with a woman called Selina Holland. Given Miriam’s penchant for independence and solitude, it is perhaps a surprise that she has taken this step, but as readers we accept and go along because Richardson chooses not to provide an explanation.

At first, Miriam is excited at this prospect of a big change in her circumstances…

Left to herself, she would now go out, not only for tea but for the whole evening, into a world renewed. There would be one of those incidents that punctually present themselves at such moments, a link in the chain of life as it appears only when one is cut off from fixed circumstances. She would come home lost and refreshed. Laze through Sunday morning. Roam about the rooms amongst things askew as though thrown up by an earthquake, their exposed strata storied with memory and promise. There would be indelible hours of reading and dreaming, of harvesting the lively thought that comes when one is neither here nor there, but poised in bright light between a life ended and a life not yet begun. The blissful state would last until dusk deepened towards evening and would leave her filled with a fresh realisation of the wonder of being alive and in the midst of life, and with strength to welcome the week slowly turning its unknown bright face towards her through the London night.

In the previous novels, while we see Miriam’s resolve to stay true to her wish to be on her own (her rejection of Shatov’s proposal was partly influenced by this), we also see her social circle expand, and one gets the sense that there is a conflict within her – while she is prefers being alone, she is not completely averse to company.

At first, the two women eagerly set up the room they are to share with their furnishings. It’s a new experience for Miriam, but that novelty rapidly wears off as differences between the two start creeping up. First, Miriam quickly learns that her love for reading does not find much resonance with Selina. But much to Miriam’s dismay, Selina also has strong negative opinions on Donizetti’s, Miriam’s favourite café, which had always been a refuge and a haven during her time in London. 

As the novel progresses, Miriam sees the real William Butler Yeats in a room across the road, and also frets about meeting the landlord to pay the rent, feeling claustrophobic when she is compelled to chat with his mother. Then there’s another neighbour Miriam and Selina gossip about – Mr Perrance, a sculptor, prone to causing a disturbance regularly, amplified by his heavy drinking and verbal brawls with his wife. Miriam also becomes increasingly unhappy with the dinginess of their room made all the more palpable when the Brooms pay her a visit. The Brooms are reserved in their opinion, but Miriam is more than thankful to take them out to tea.

Ultimately, Miriam and Selina have a huge argument which only reinforces the failure of Miriam’s social experiment with hints provided to the reader that this is not an arrangement Miriam is likely to continue.

That’s it for September. October has started on a slow note where I’m taking my time to read A Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff and O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker both of which I’m really enjoying. I do intend to also read the ninth and tenth books from the Pilgrimage series – Oberland and Dawn’s Left Hand.  

Cursed Bunny – Bora Chung (tr. Anton Hur)

Bora Chung’s Cursed Bunny was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize this year and has received such widespread acclaim, that having read it now I can only concur with all the praise heaped upon it.

Cursed Bunny is a terrific collection of ten stories that merge the genres of horror, science fiction, magical realism and dream logic to explore a wide variety of themes that are possibly a commentary on the ills of Korean society, but which could simply be applied to any society where patriarchy and greed rules the roost.

As usual, I won’t focus on each of the ten stories but dwell instead on the ones that really stood out and made an impression.

I’ll begin with the second story “The Embodiment”, a disturbing tale of prospective motherhood, single parenting and how the idea of a family unit is heavily defined by conventional mores. The protagonist, a young woman, is prescribed birth control pills by the doctor for a certain period when she complains of heavy menstruation and the unbearable pain that comes with it. But things go awry the day she’s shocked to discover she’s pregnant, the result of having taken those pills for a longer time than necessary. Her doctor, a heavily made up woman, is unsympathetic about her plight and makes a strange statement of how the woman needs to urgently find a father if the pregnancy has to proceed normally. So intent is the woman on the task of finding a suitable father which entails going on a slew of pointless seon dates that she laments at not having the option of considering single motherhood.

But what did it mean for the baby to not grow “properly”? She thought of the hostile glare of the obstetrician with the thick make-up. If she needed a father for the baby for its proper growth, what could explain the size of the stomach now? Hadn’t she simple been scared by a few words of a doctor – some young woman with a nasty personality? Had she been so focused on finding a father for the baby that she hadn’t thought enough about that the baby really needed? Regardless of its growth, whether it had a father or not, the baby was hers and hers alone, in the truest sense. “Live only for the child.”

The titular story “Cursed Bunny” is a story within a story, a wonderful tale on the evils of capitalism which bolster greed and unfair business practices. The narrator is a man working in his family business that makes “cursed fetishes”. We learn of how his family’s business is looked upon with suspicion by their neighbours because its very nature means that it can’t quite be conveniently classified. There are two essential principles that the business must follow, and yet the narrator’s grandfather recounts a story from his childhood, a tale that the narrator has heard umpteen times, but a novelty to the reader. We learn of the grandfather’s friend, an upright man running a distillery business, a family run affair where innovation, superior quality and technology are worth their weight in gold. But then a larger company enters the scene to disrupt the operations of the family distillery. Hugely relying on political connections and networking rather than product quality and technology, the conglomerate pretty much puts the grandfather’s friend out of business with debilitating results, paving the way for the grandfather, a master at cursed fetishes, to plot his revenge.

Another favourite of mine is the story called “Snare”, a chilling, frightening tale of the gruesome aftermath of avarice. One day a man, while walking through the snow clad forest, comes across a fox trapped in a snare. However, it’s not blood that oozes out from the wound, but something that resembles gold. The man takes the injured fox with him home and over the next few years deliberately injures the beleaguered animal to extract as much gold as he can. The man thrives in his business to become immensely rich, but the fox after his grievous injuries is reduced to skin and bones, and finally dies. The man makes a scarf out of the fox’s fur which he gifts to his wife. Soon after she is pregnant and gives birth to twins, a girl and a boy. One day in a scuffle between the children, the girl lets out a bloodcurdling scream because her brother has bit her and is sucking her blood. The mother in her attempts to tear them apart, scratches her finger on the boy’s forehead, out of which gold starts trickling. The man, as a witness, realizes the implications of this, and sensing an opportunity, begins to use his children to feed his appetite for wealth with terrible consequences.

Another story “The Frozen Finger” has all the makings of a typical horror story, a story of being trapped where the line between dreams and reality is blurred. It begins with a woman opening her eyes.

Darkness. Pitch black. Like someone has dropped a thick veil of black over her eyes. Not even a pinpoint of light to be seen.

Has she gone blind?

Frantically groping around her to find her bearings, she is able to discern a steering wheel but is unable to remember a thing. Not surprisingly, she is disconcerted when a voice somewhere near her begins to whisper her name. The voice informs her that she has been in an accident, that the car is stuck in a swamp, and that she needs to get out from there quickly lest she sinks into the marsh. Rescuing her from the car, the voice urges her to move on and acting with urgency the woman relents. She begins to run blindly in search of firmer ground guided by the frozen fingers of that mysterious being only to realize that she is stuck in some kind of bizarre but claustrophobic nightmare.

In “Goodbye, My Love”, a trio of robots with artificial intelligence capabilities revolt against their maker; in “Home Sweet Home”, a woman invests her hard earned savings into buying a building only to be confronted by a host of problems, not the least of which is her irresponsible husband; the story “Scars” is a violent, disquieting tale of imprisonment, the illusory notion of freedom and the price one has to pay for it.

There’s a wide variety of themes explored – entrapment, capitalism, patriarchy, the roles of women, body image, violence, cruelty and the distorted illusion of freedom. Women, particularly, often get a raw deal trampled by the burden of patriarchal society, their agency curtailed. We see this in “The Embodiment” where the woman is told in no uncertain terms that her pregnancy has meaning only if she can find a father; we see it in “Snare” where the man treats his wife and daughter terribly as if their wishes and opinions don’t matter in his quest for immense riches; we see it in “Home Sweet Home” where the woman pays off all her debts, saves up enough to buy a house only to see her husband squander it away with no inkling of respect for her hard work.

Cursed Bunny, then, is a smorgasbord of genres, range and style – horror, fantasy, magical realism where the bizarre sometimes effectively blends with the mundane. Chung has an unflinching perspective, which is particularly jarring but vivid in the way bodily functions are candidly depicted in her stories. In lesser hands, this would have been too much to stomach, but Chung displays a knack for making the stories she weaves around them strangely riveting. The stories in Cursed Bunny are surreal, visceral and quite unlike anything I’ve read before, but they come with a unique, interior logic that works. These macabre, fantastical setups are not only horrific by themselves, but become an effective framework to explore the horrors of real life – cruelties of men, ill treatment of women, evils of capitalism and so on. Absorbing and utterly compelling this is a collection not to be missed.

WIT Month: Some Excellent Books from Japan, Korea & China

August is Women in Translation (WIT) Month, one that I always look forward to. I thought I’d write a post every week on few of my favourite reads in recent years that are worth considering for this month. So without much ado, first up is a look at some excellent literature from Japan, Korea and China.  For detailed reviews, you can click on the title links.

Translated from Japanese

AN I-NOVEL by Minae Mizumura (tr. Juliet Winters Carpenter)

An I-Novel is a gorgeous, lyrical meditation on language, race, identity, family and the desire and deep yearning to go back to your roots, to your own country. The novel is a semi-autobiographical work that takes place over the course of a single day in the 1980s. Our narrator is Minae, a young woman studying French literature at a prestigious university on the East Coast, close to Manhattan. When the novel opens, it is deep midwinter, and Minae is alone, struggling to grapple with apathy and loneliness as a deepening pall of gloom pervades her apartment. The intensity of stasis afflicting Minae is rooted in her unwillingness to take any decisive action regarding her future. After having lived for two decades in the United States, Minae has an aching desire to relocate to Japan, her home country.

An I-Novel throbs and pulses with big ideas on language, race, identity, family, freedom and loneliness, all presented in Minae Mizumura’s stylish, understated and elegant writing. She manages to brilliantly convey the dilemma that plagues our narrator – the sense of never really settling down in a new country and longing for the country of your origin, the impression of being adrift, uprooted and never belonging anywhere.

WOMAN RUNNING IN THE MOUNTAINS by Yuko Tsushima (tr. Geraldine Harcourt)

Woman Running in the Mountains, then, is a stunning, immersive novel of single motherhood, loneliness and alienation; a novel tinged with beauty and melancholia, with darkness and light, where haunting landscapes of the natural world offer pockets of relief from the harsh reality of a brutal family life.

The book opens with a scene of Takiko, a young, 21-year old woman, at home in her bed grappling with an intense pain in her belly. She immediately knows that she’s in labour and gets ready to make the arduous journey to the municipal hospital where she has reserved a place. Takiko is hell bent on going there by herself, trudging alone in the scorching hot midsummer sun, in pain but with a will of steel, determined not to let her mother accompany her. Once comfortably settled in the hospital, she gives birth to a healthy baby boy (called Akira).

That’s the end of the first chapter, and the subsequent chapters move back and forth, dwelling on the daily challenges of new motherhood that Takiko must embrace, while at the same time giving a glimpse into her immediate past – her dismal family circumstances, the brief paltry affair that results in her pregnancy and the venom and abuse her parents subject her to when she decides to keep the baby.

Single motherhood and its myriad challenges is one of the biggest themes in Woman Running in the Mountains, a topic obviously close to Tsushima’s heart given that she was also a single mother. It’s is a bracing, beautiful novel where Tsushima’s lyrical, limpid prose drenched in touches of piercing wisdom coupled with its range of vivid, haunting, dreamlike imagery makes it such a pleasure to read.

THE MEMORY POLICE by Yoko Ogawa (tr. Stephen Snyder)

At its very core, the theme in The Memory Police centers on disappearance and memory loss.

Our narrator is a woman earning her living by writing novels on an unnamed island. It’s a place where the Memory Police at regular intervals make things and all memories associated with them disappear. As soon as these objects are made to vanish, most residents easily forget them and no longer recall that they ever existed. But there are those who cannot forget. Thus, the Memory Police’s mandate also involves tracking and hunting down these people after which they are never heard of again.

In the present, our narrator is working on a novel and provides updates on its progress to her editor R. Upon realising that R cannot erase his memories, she decides she has to hide him before he is found out by the police.

Ogawa’s prose is haunting, quiet, reflective and yet suffused with enough tension to keep the reader heavily interested. 

THE TEN LOVES OF MR NISHINO by Hiromi Kawakami (tr. Allison Markin Powell)

The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino is an excellent collection of ten interconnected tales of love told in sharp, lucid prose. Each of those ten stories is told by a different woman. As the title suggests, Yukihiko Nishino is the main thread that binds these tales. There is a beguiling and other worldly quality to Kawakami’s writing laced with her keen insights and observations.

Translated from Chinese

LOVE IN A FALLEN CITY by Eileen Chang (tr. Karen S. Kingsbury)

Love in a Fallen City is a collection of four novellas and two short stories offering a fascinating glimpse into the lives of people in 1930s/1940s Shanghai and Hong Kong.

I really liked the flavor of the four novellas in this collection accentuated by the fact that Eileen Chang’s writing is elegant and incisive with a lovely way of describing things. She has a flair for painting a detailed picture of the social mores of the time and well as for her perceptive depictions of the inner workings of her characters’ minds. And she also highlights the subtle differences between Hong Kong, which has more of a British essence, and Shanghai which is more Chinese.

Ultimately, there is something tragic about the men and women (the latter particularly) in her novellas, a sense of melancholy that leaves its mark on the reader.

Translated from Korean

UNTOLD NIGHT AND DAY by Bae Suah (tr. Deborah Smith)

Bae Suah’s Untold Night and Day is a deliciously disorienting and strange book. At a basic level, the plot centers around Ayami, a woman who has been working at a nondescript audio theatre for two years. The theatre is now on the verge of being shut down and Ayami’s future is quite uncertain. But that is barely scratching the surface.

Throughout the novel, perspectives keep shifting, the book abounds with repetitions of descriptions (both people and places). The reader is never sure of standing on solid ground, a ground that keeps disintegrating. The novel is made up of four sections, and each section has something new in it while also echoing many elements of what has gone on before giving the novella a circular structure. A large part of what makes the book so readable is Bae Suah’s writing. The prose is elegant and a pleasure to read and the repetitions only enhance its hypnotic quality. 

THE WHITE BOOK by Han Kang (tr. Deborah Smith)

Han Kang’s The Vegetarian made it to my Best of the Year list in 2015 (pre-blog days), and was unlike anything that I read that year. The White Book is a completely different book, but brilliant in its own way. Hang Kang focuses on white objects as a medium through which she explores themes of grief, loss, finding peace and solace. The novel is in the form of fragments, short paragraphs each fitting on a page, and told in a style that is haunting and lyrical.

Untold Night and Day – Bae Suah (tr. Deborah Smith)

My knowledge of Korean literature is patchy at best and the only two books I have read are – The Vegetarian and The White Book – both written by Han Kang and translated by Deborah Smith.

Wanting to try out a new author and also attracted by the cover, I picked up Bae Suah’s Untold Night and Day. It helped that this book was translated by Smith who did a stellar job working on Kang’s books earlier.

Bae Suah’s Untold Night and Day is a wonderfully strange and disorienting novel.

Perspectives keep shifting, the book abounds with repetitions of descriptions (both people and places). The reader is never sure of standing on solid ground, a ground that keeps disintegrating.

The novel is made up of four sections, and each section has something new in it while also echoing many elements of what has gone on before giving the novella a circular structure.

 The story begins on a straightforward note. Our protagonist is a woman called Ayami who has been working at a nondescript audio theatre for two years. The theatre is now on the verge of being shut down and Ayami’s future is quite uncertain. Before working at the theatre, Ayami was an actor. But the paucity of roles leads to that career fizzling out. Someone recommends an opening at the audio theatre and she ends up accepting the position. It’s a job that many actors before her abandoned as they nurtured bigger ambitions, but Ayami holds on.

As future job prospects look bleak, the director of the audio theatre recommends that she apply to the foundation for another position in the arts (something he plans to do as well since it’s a job loss for him too). However, she sees the futility of this move and doesn’t apply.

Meanwhile, Ayami has been taking German lessons from a teacher called Yeoni at the latter’s house in a rundown neighbourhood. Yeoni’s teaching method involves reading from a text rather than focusing on conversation – and the text she has chosen is Sadeq Hedayat’s The Blind Owl.

Yeoni appears to be suffering from a serious illness for which she is taking pills from a blue bottle. Then one day, she tells Ayami that she is expecting a poet to come at her place and could Ayami therefore go to the airport to receive him? Ayami and the director head over to Yeoni’s house first for the set of instructions, but find her place empty and the neighbourhood completely dark. They wonder whether she hasn’t admitted herself into the hospital.

That’s the basic outline of the plot, if it can be called a plot as such.

It seems simple enough but then the strangeness begins. We get a first hint of this when Ayami is at the theatre on what is to be her last day, and she sees an old couple outside peering at the notices and what’s inside. She begins to wonder if they are her parents, and the reader who until this point was coasting along is suddenly jolted. Clearly, there’s a sense that Ayami is not sure of her identity.

Then another amazingly peculiar conversation takes place between the director and Ayami in a ‘blackout restaurant.’

His lips could be seen to move. What was visible were not the words themselves but segmented syllables that his lips produced one after the other.

‘Have I ever told you that I used to be a bus driver?’

‘No, you’ve never told me that you used to be a poet.’

‘in that case perhaps I already said that at one time I was not only a playwright employed by a theatre company but also an actor-director? And that very long time ago I was a village pharmacist?’

‘No, you haven’t told me that you were none other than my father, who was a fruit hawker.’

The director’s lips moved sluggishly.

‘And you haven’t forgotten what I wrote in the letter, that I made the decision to leave you a long time ago, far longer ago than you imagine? So in that sense, we’ve already parted?’

In the second section, we are introduced to a character called Buha who was a trader in textiles and now is a temp in a pharmaceutical company. Buha is the focal point of this section, and in a way Ayami is absent and yet she is not. Buha aspires to be a poet even though he does not want to write poetry or take literature classes.

He chances upon a black-and-white photo of a poet woman in the newspaper, and when he spots her one day in the city decides to follow her. He sees her enter Yeoni’s house. Is Ayami, therefore, the poet woman?

The book the poet woman read from every evening was The Blind Owl.

She worked in a place called an audio theatre. It had very few visitors, and only one performance a day; it was a small theatre whose audience never numbered more than ten.

In the third section, Ayami once again actively appears in the narrative and this time she meets Wolfi at the airport. She assumes Wolfi is the poet who she was to receive on instructions from Yeoni, but Wolfi writes detective fiction. Plus, Wolfi was expecting Yeoni to pick him up (he had never set his eyes on Yeoni before), and is perplexed to meet Ayami instead.

At this point, the reader begins to wonder whether Ayami and Yeoni are possibly the same person?

I’m here because my female protagonist dies. My female protagonist whose name and identity I still don’t know, that is. Where does she come from? Who is she? I have her living somewhere in Asia. More specifically, in some city in the Far East that I’m not familiar with, in the house of a woman called Yeoni. She’s an unlucky woman. Not Yeoni, but my female protagonist. Or maybe Yeoni is my “she”, my female protagonist?

One of the most wonderful things about Untold Night and Day is how the banal holds so much potential for strangeness. The characters in the book are ordinary people who don’t really stand out, but the conversations they have are extraordinary. Throughout the novel, there is a sense of déjà vu and many a-ha moments – the feeling that we have gread this description or come across this event somewhere before.

For instance, in the first section, when Ayami is in the audio theatre, a man presses his face against the closed glass doors. She observes that “the man’s eye sockets were like sunken caves in his gaunt face, and his lips were dry. The capillaries webbing the whites of his eyes were alarmingly distinct…”

In the second section, Buha saves a man from drowning and notices that “the man’s eyes were like sunken caves in his gaunt face, and his lips were dry. The capillaries webbing the whites of his eyes were frighteningly distinct.”

There are similar such instances peppered throughout the book. “Her thick black hair is secured in a low ponytail, and rough hemp sandals poke out from beneath the hem of her skirt” is another.

The ‘blackout’ is continually referenced in the novel and is an allusion to Korea’s past when curfews and blackouts were the norm. When Wolfi lands in Seoul, he finds that “the so-called international airport is in the middle of a blackout. Dark, pitch-black, blurred, all objects shrouded in shadow, a blind low-ceilinged space.” In the first section, Ayami and the director are having dinner in a restaurant that is completely blacked out. Then in the later sections, a lone white bus is described on the highway travelling at top speed at a time when the lights in the surrounding buildings are completely off.

Untold Night and Day follows the logic of a dream world and within that anything seems possible. People, objects and events seamlessly blur into one another. What’s impossible in reality is perfectly plausible in the subconscious. And on waking up, the essentials of the dream are forgotten but not the impressions it evokes. The book felt similar. There is a slippery and elusive quality to the narrative, a sense that that one can’t quite grasp what’s happening, it feels like the meaning is somewhere on the fringes of the mind but somehow refuses to come out to the front.

A large part of what makes the book so readable is Bae Suah’s writing. The prose is elegant and a pleasure to read and the repetitions only enhance its hypnotic quality. The language is flawless and the credit here surely goes to the translator Deborah Smith. Overall, Untold Night and Day is quite a remarkable book.

I have been quite impressed with my first foray into Bae Suah’s work and would welcome any recommendations on which of her books I should try next.