Category Archives: Portobello Books

The Vegetarian – Han Kang

It seems apt to be posting a review (which I meant to post last week) about this novel at a time when the idea of eating anymore meat makes me feel slightly queasy post Christmas dining like a loon. The Vegetarian by Han Kang is a book I have had on my shelves since this time last year, however the buzz and word of mouth praise around it had been building and building. Then when a copy of her next novel to be translated (again by Deborah Smith) Human Acts landed through my letter box I was reminded that I needed to get a wriggle on and read the first, erm, first.

9781846275623

Portobello Books, 2015, paperback, fiction, 186 pages, translated by Deborah Smith kindly sent by the publisher

When The Vegetarian opens we are taken into the rather contented, safe and traditional world (as he sees it) of Mr Cheong. He describes how he met his wife, Yeong-hye, and fell for her not because of love but because she was basically very average, quite unremarkable and wouldn’t threaten his life or lifestyle. Okay, so she didn’t wear a bra which was rather shocking but nothing too radical, she would be a good ‘wife’ to him. That is until a few nights ago when he is awakened to his wife getting all the meat out the fridge and freezer, throwing it away and declaring that from now on she is a vegetarian. Her reason? All she will say to him is that she has had a dream and from there the novel starts to spiral, first with Mr Cheong (with a small detour to his shocked and appalled colleagues) and then Yeong-hye’s immediate family reacting badly, a reaction – when her father tried to force feed her pork – which is the start of a real change in Yeong-hye’s life and those close to her.

People turn vegetarian for all sorts of reasons: to try and alter their genetic predispositions towards certain allergies, for example, or else because it’s seen as more environmentally friendly not to eat meat. Of course, Buddhist priests who have taken certain vows are morally obliged not to participate in the destruction of life, but surely not even impressionable young girls take it quite that far. As far as I was concerned, the only reasonable grounds for altering one’s eating habits were the desire to lose weight, an attempt to alleviate certain physical ailments, being possessed by an evil spirit, or having your sleep disturbed by indigestion. In any other case, it was nothing but sheer obstinacy for a wife to go against her husband’s wishes as mine had done.

I don’t want to give too much away, I never do, yet I will need to give a few additional teasers to really get into the heart of why I loved the book and also the way it was written, structured and stunningly translated by Deborah Smith. The Vegetarian is a book in three parts, which were originally three separate novellas about several stages in Yeong-hye’s life. What is really interesting is that none of them are told by Yeong-hye herself. Firstly we have the story told by her husband from the lead up to the announcement of her vegetarianism and to the family dinner where it all unravels. In the second section we switch to the viewpoint of her brother in law as he becomes erotically obsessed with his sister in law and believes she will be part of his next great art work. The third is told through her sister as she visits Yeong-hye who is residing in an institution after a breakdown.

There was much I loved about the way in which this works for a reader. As we read on we gain insights and glimpses into the society in Korea, what it finds acceptable and inacceptable and what your role within that society is deemed to be. Yeong-hye is meant to be the perfect wife, the perfect sister, the perfect daughter, the perfect muse. The simple act of becoming a vegetarian, I say that flippantly because here in the UK it is a simple act, conspires to a full breakdown not only of Yeong-hye herself but of those close to her and even those who have only met her a few times and/or have to interact with her.

It is not just people and their roles or their expectations that Kang is looking at either. In the first part Mr Cheong looks at his career, the corporate world and the traditional roles of marriage and the expectation of each spouse. In the second part we look at the art world, the creative, the erotic and the role of desire (in good and bad ways) and society’s views on sex in and outside of a marriage. Thirdly we see society’s attitudes to mental health, and the health care system as it stands, which of course by its very nature defies ‘the norm’ or what is deemed acceptable behaviour. This last section I found incredibly powerful. Pressure and judgement is everywhere, one act can have major reverberations and one small fracture in a family can cause complete wreckage, whereupon who is left to pick up the pieces, if anyone wants to.

 ‘Ah, you’re visiting today?’
The woman is Hee-joo, how is receiving treatment for alcoholism and hypomania. Her body is stout but her round eyes give her a sweet look, and her voice is always somewhat hoarse. In this hospital, the patients who are in good control of their faculties look after those with more acute psychological problems, and receive a little pocket money in return; when Yeong-hye had grown difficult to manage, refusing point blank to eat, she had come under the care of Hee-joo.

It actually turns out that Yeong-hye is not the small act that lead to this, in a way is a case of her using some form of control to deal with another act from her past, which I don’t want to spoil for anyone who hasn’t read it because it is incredibly powerful, from a single line, when the penny drops. I was left feeling very numb for sometime afterwards. I will say no more on this part of the book, other than it is superbly, superbly done showing the power of Han Kang’s writing and Deborah Smith’s marvellous translation from the original Korean.

Speaking more of the writing, to avoid any spoilers, not a line is wasted in this book; it is precise, beautiful and quite searing. Kang manages to create scenes, landscapes and sections of society and the culture around it effortlessly – let us not forget this is a slim volume even made up of three novellas. Her triumph in The Vegetarian though is the creation of Yeong-hye and her story. Yeong-hye is at once a complete individual and also a symbol of many, many women and the pressure and expectation that is put on them. She speaks for no one and yet everyone, and yet she also never speaks. Her family, society and everyone else does the talking for her and yet somehow Kang makes these characters see her from only their viewpoint yet the reader is given her fully formed. The only things we ever hear from her are a few small sections from her dreams/nightmares and I think we all know what Kang is trying to say with this.

Dark woods. No people. The sharp-pointed leaves on the trees, my torn feet. This place, almost remembered, but I’m lost now. Frightened. Cold. Across the frozen ravine, a red barn-like building. Straw matting flapping limp across the door. Roll it up and I’m inside, it’s inside. A long bamboo stick struck with great blood-red gashes of meat, there’s no end to the meat, and no exit. Blood in my mouth, blood-soaked clothes sucked onto my skin.

If I am making this book sound to heavy it is honestly not, which is also what is so brilliant about it. There are some very funny, magical, titillating and sexy moments in the book amongst the thought provoking and questioning layers throughout. You can also just read this as being a book about a woman who decides to stop eating meat and become a plant. Yet The Vegetarian is so, so, so much more than that. It is a book that has imprinted itself on my brain and one I will be recommending to anyone and everyone, it is certainly one of my books of the year. I cannot wait to read Human Acts which I have on my bedside table waiting for the first week of January when I will devour it. If you haven’t read The Vegetarian yet I seriously recommend you do and will be reminding you so again in a few days – yes, it is one of my books of the year!

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Filed under #DiverseDecember, Books of 2015, Granta Books, Han Kang, Portobello Books, Review

Days of Grace – Catherine Hall

There are some authors whose writing I think can touch the very heart of an individual readers ‘reading soul’. I know that might sound a bit bonkers but sometimes you can pick up a book and feel that it has been written for you, regardless of the subject matter. Of course this is lunacy because the author doesn’t know you and many people may too feel the same way about said book, regardless in your head that book was written for you… The end. It’s so rare even your favourite authors don’t always do it, but some do. This has happened to me with authors such as Jane Harris and Edward Hogan (in particular both their second novels ‘Gillespie and I’ and ‘The Hunger Trace’ I swear were written for me and me alone and I won’t hear otherwise). Now Catherine Hall joins this select few authors who I would give both my arms to be able to write like, I am aware of the irony in this, after her debut novel ‘Days of Grace’ has bowled me over just as much as ‘The Proof of Love’ did yet for very different reasons.

*****, Portobello Books, paperback, 201o, fiction, 292 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

‘Days of Grace’ is one of those tricky, thrilling and mysterious novels where you are given two strands of the narrator’s life at once. We meet Nora both in the present as she silently come to terms with the fact that she is terminally ill, we also meet her aged twelve as the Second World war is on the cusp of breaking out and she is evacuated to the countryside.

The strands of her life at these points we meet her move forward, in the present as she watches and then comes to the aid of a pregnant neighbour and in the past as she moves into the Rectory of a Kent village and befriends the daughter of the family Grace, a friendship so strong it binds them together as friends for life, and complicates life for Nora, only something happens so tragic that it casts a shadow on Nora’s life forever leading to the lonely life of a secretive spinster in the present.

Of course you will all now be desperate to know what the secret is won’t you? Well, you would have to read the book to find out and whilst that may seem teasing of me I really do hope you rush out and get a copy because it is just so wonderful. And now I shall explain why…

I found Nora fascinating from the off. Having read some other reviews of the book since it seems some people have found her aloof and a little cold, I can understand what they mean but I was all the more intrigued about her because of it, how does a relatively care-free young girl (well, as care-free as one could have been during WWII) become a woman so cut off from the world? As I read on, especially as everything is revealed, I could completely understand it. Yet she is also at odds with herself, she helps a pregnant young girl, only years ago she was a vital part of a vibrant independent bookshop (this is a bookish book, I loved her all the more for loving Rebecca as a young girl), I was rather fascinated by her no matter how distant she could be. There is of course the question of how reliable she may or may not be, obsession can lead to romanticising and changing events, but again I loved this too. I do like an unreliable narrator.

“Be careful what you say. Like everyone else, you will hear things that the enemy mustn’t know. Keep that knowledge to yourself – and don’t give away any clues. Keep smiling.”

What I also really admired and loved about the book is that even though we have one narrator we have two stories. These are told in alternating chapters throughout the book. This device is one that is used often and normally I have to admit one story will overtake my interest as I read on. Not in the case of ‘Days of Grace’. I was desperate to know what was going to happen with Nora and Grace as the war went on both in idyllic Kent and the roughness and danger of London but I also wanted to know, just as much, what was going to happen with Nora in the present, her health and the relationship with Rose and her baby. Both stories had me intrigued and I think that was because Catherine Hall very cleverly has the stories mystery foreboding the past tense narrative and shadowing the present without us knowing what it is until the last minute. I thought this brilliantly paced and plotted out. I had no idea what was coming yet in hindsight I can see where the clues and hints were dropped.

I was completely spellbound by ‘Days of Grace’. It made me cry on more than one occasion, the first being because of the cancer storyline and everything going on with Gran (yet this was also oddly cathartic) at the moment but at the end just because the culmination of the book and the emotions running through it suddenly hit you.

For a book of 292 pages there is a huge amount going on and so, like with a lot of my favourite authors, there is not a spare word unnecessarily nestled in the prose. It is also one of those wonderful novels that manages to be ‘literary’ yet also have that utterly compelling pace and mystery at its heart that you become quite addicted. I didn’t actually want to be parted from it (so I nearly cancelled seeing people), and yet I didn’t want it to end (so I kept my appointments after all). Basically, if you haven’t taken the hint yet, I am urging you to give this book a whirl. It’s marvellous.

Has anyone else read ‘Days of Grace’, if so what did you think? Did any of you run off and read ‘The Proof of Love’ after I raved about it last year? Do any of you have moments, like I mentioned early on, where you start reading a book and think ‘this was written for me’ and if so who is the author and what was the book?

Oh and a small note: you can see me in conversation with Catherine Hall and Patrick Gale next Monday at Manchester Literature Festival, where I will be demanding to know when the next book is coming out and more.

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Filed under Books of 2012, Catherine Hall, Portobello Books, Review

The Proof of Love – Catherine Hall

There are some books that catch your unawares when you least expect it. They take you away to a world you aren’t sure will be your ‘cup of tea’ and captivate you, they make you want to read the whole book in a sitting or two whilst also wanting to make every single page count. You are bereft when the book finishes and you can’t stop talking about it at any opportunity you get. ‘The Proof of Love’ by Catherine Hall is a book that did just that. I admit that if someone had said ‘read a book about a Cambridge mathematician who escapes the academic world by voluntarily farming in the lake district in the 1970’s’ I probably would have said, very politely, ‘I’m not sure that’s my thing’. However I couldn’t have been more wrong by this exceptional novel which will be flying into my top five books of the year so far no questions.

Spencer Little arrives in a rural village in the Lake District by bicycle on the hottest day of the sweltering summer of 1976 looking for nothing more than work in exchange for lodging and board. He decides to try the first farm he comes across, Mirethwaite, and the home of the Dodd’s family. Here he becomes a kind of addition to a rather interesting family consisting of the young and loveably precocious ten year old Alice, her subdued mother Mary and the head of the household, and rather frightening, Hartley, a man fuelled by alcohol and anger. It’s an interesting dynamic to a tale about rural life and ‘incomers’ as well as one of just why Spencer is escaping from the very start and one that becomes more compelling as it goes.

“It was hard to get used to Hartley’s new, jovial manner. Together with the beer, it made Spencer feel disorientated, as if he had stepped into another world, somewhere far away from either the competition of Cambridge or the tensions of Mirethwaite. Now Hartley was going over to the bar and ordering three large glasses of whisky. He brought them back to the table, his cheeks flushed, eyes bright under dark eyebrows.”

As well as there being the family dynamic in ‘The Proof of Love’ Catherine Hall also introduces the villagers and village life. She gets the mixture of slightly claustrophobic and rather remote spot on. Add to it this sweltering heat and you can really get a sense of atmosphere. She also makes sheep farming and village fetes rather exciting which I think deserves a mention. I was honestly on the edge of my seat during a scene involving the removal of a ram’s horns. Not something I would have expected to ever hear myself say. In creating the sense of a real village one of Hall’s other great achievements is her characters, one of my favourites after Alice, was the elderly spinster Dorothy Wilkinson. Dorothy in a way becomes the middle man of the story and gives it a peripheral view on occasion, who many people think is ‘a witch’ and yet is one of the few people to befriend this new outsider Spencer. Hall as an author also manages to encapsulate the gossip and one up man ship caused by boredom and small minds in the women of the town, the men are too often in the pub and not seen so often, in fact it’s these very things that give the book its great twists as it moves forward.

“Oh, leave him alone,’ said the lean, well-dressed woman on her right. Unlike the other women she was wearing make-up, her lips painted an immaculate red. As he turned towards Spencer he caught a whiff of strong perfume. ‘There’s plenty of time for him to get involved in the wretched fete if he wants.’ She flashed him a glossy smile. ‘Although I’d think carefully about it, if I were you. It seems to get people rather caught up in it.
 Margaret bristled. ‘Oh Valerie. I just thought it would be a good way for him to make friends. He cant spend all his time up at the farm with Hartley Dodds and that brother of his.’
 ‘And Mary,’ said Valerie, raising a perfectly arched eyebrow. ‘We mustn’t forget her.’
 She was looking at Spencer with something which seemed like amusement. Avoiding her eyes, he looked out of the window. A farmer was sitting on a tractor, cutting grass in the field beyond the vicarage. He wished they could exchange places.”

Catherine does something very clever with Spencer. He does both alienate and ingratiate himself in village life. He builds a lovely relationship with the young Alice Dodds, whilst also trying to keep everyone at arms length. Ask him anything about Cambridge and he shuts down, this off course adds a second strand to the tale of just why he left and encourages us to read on. It’s like a story of a man’s struggle to reinvent himself as the man who he really is. You will of course probably need to read the book, and indeed you should, in order to get what I mean and see the brilliance of Hall’s writing as she achieves that.

“He was, he thought, quite unlike the person who had arrived on his bicycle a month before. He felt excitement stir in his stomach, a rumble of possibility, as if he were emerging from a cocoon. The prospect was both daunting and a thrill.”

As I mentioned I didn’t think that this would be a book that was my sort of thing but I was proven 100% wrong as Catherine Hall weaved me into a subtle and sublime tale that shocks its reader in quick succession half way through and within pages gives the reader a real foreboding of what might be coming for the final 100 pages. You want to read on and you daren’t all at once. I wonder if it’s that factor that has caused the ‘Sarah Waters meets Daphne Du Maurier’ quote. It’s a big hype for any author to be compared to these two novelists, and one I don’t think it’s fair to call. In fact I think Catherine Hall deserves to simply be called a brilliant author in her own right.

I can’t hide the fact that I loved ‘The Proof of Love’. It’s a book that gently weaves you in. You become both an ‘outcomer’ and one of the locals. You are part of the loneliness and isolation of Spencer as well as the gossiping heart of the community, part of the mystery and part of the suspicions. It’s a very subtly clever book, it doesn’t show off the fact that it’s a rare and wonderful book at any point, but I can assure you it is. 10/10

This book was kindly sent by the publisher.

I should mention the fact that I was first made aware of this book through Cornflower Books and then ‘Fiction Uncovered’ (I have also read ‘Night Waking’ by Sarah Moss – review soon – which is on the shortlist and well worth a read, so I may now have to read them all) and you can see a wonderful, and much shorter – sorry, endorsement from one of its judges Sarah Crown, who is also the editor of the Guardian Books website, which I thought I should share…

I couldn’t agree with her more and urge you all to read ‘The Proof of Love’ and let it slowly and silently creep up on you unawares. I am going to have to get Catherine Hall’s debut novel ‘Days of Grace’ very, very soon. Has anyone else read either of Catherine Hall’s books? Which book has completely surprised you with its brilliance, when you were least expecting it, of late?

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Filed under Books of 2011, Catherine Hall, Fiction Uncovered, Granta Books, Portobello Books, Review

The Report – Jessica Francis Kane

I have mentioned before how books about WWII have to be something a little bit different in order to grab me as it’s a subject that gets written about one heck of a lot. From its blurb ‘The Report’ by Jessica Francis Kane looked like it would be such a book, as rather than being a telling of the war it focuses on one of the biggest tragedies at the time, and one that wasn’t caused by a bomb. I first heard about the book on ‘Books On The Nightstand’ where it Ann Kingman raved about it and then again on Open Book on Radio 4 where Mariella Frostrup (who I love and would like the jobs of please) gave its author rather a grilling.

Jessica Francis Kane’s debut novel ‘The Report’ centres around the true-life tragic deaths of 173 people, 62 of which were children, who were making their way into Bethnal Green Underground Station on March the 3rd 1943 to use it as an Air Raid shelter. Yet this was not caused by a bomb but a sudden case of mass hysteria as the crowd entering were suddenly alarmed, and so surged into the entrance causing a crush. Initially the whole incident was hushed up, however not too long after an inquiry and afterwards ‘a report’ was established. Jessica Francis Kane explores the process that happened and the people who this happened to in the guise of fiction or faction, or whatever the term is.

Initially I have to admit that I was a little disappointed by the book and though this didn’t last I do feel I should explain why.  The book is separated into sections and during ‘The Shelter’ I could tell Jessica Francis Kane could clearly write but something was causing a real distance between myself and the events and people. At first I thought it was that the jumping of perspectives, one minute we are with several different characters (confusing enough initially) and their viewpoints of the events, and then we are with Laurence Dunne the man behind the investigation both in 1943 and also thirty years later when he is asked to be part of a documentary. Yet as this went on I got used to who we were with and what was going on, that really was me as a reader not the book in this case.

I then realised that while I was reading a book that was meant to be fiction in actual fact the level of research that Francis Kane had done (to her credit and without showing off) in order to make the inquiry so real to the reader was in fact making me feel like I was reading non-fiction. Really good non-fiction though. This, technically, was rightly so as this book is a fiction retelling on an inquiry where people simply tell the facts of what happened, rather than the event itself. In some ways, and I don’t know if this was because of the fact it was a real life event and those effected by it and their descendents are still living, the author does try and veer the reader away from the actual tragedy on the underground staircase and I was expecting a lot more as if I was there when it happened and therefore giving me more of an emotional response to it. This comes later though.

What Jessica Francis Kane then does in the section called ‘The Inquiry’, about 70 pages in, is build up on characters from the earlier parts of the book and interweave their stories of surviving and moving on in the aftermath of the event along with the how’s and why’s it happened. This then brought in the human element I felt I was initially missing out on. I was originally surprised not to see this book on the Orange list from premise alone, however with the slow start before the gripping pay off I can imagine if this was a book that had been put forward for ‘The Green Carnation Prize’ when we get so much to read, I might have not continued, but this wasn’t and so I did. So from that I can highly recommend that if you get this book, and it is worth getting, you keep going past page 70 and you will have yourselves a very interesting read ahead.

‘The Report’ is a book which in throwing you in slightly at the deep end by giving you lots of voices and facts build upon them creating a gripping and insightful yet sensitive tale of a true life tragedy. It’s a book you need to bear with and if you do so you will reap the rewards. It’s a very different look at the lives of the people in London’s East End during the Blitz and one that was partially forgotten. In parts it reads more like non-fiction than the ‘fiction’ it has labelled itself but really once it gets going it’s such a fascinating read it doesn’t really matter. 8.5/10

This book was kindly sent to me by the publishers.

This book has brought up the whole subject of facts in fiction and indeed the genre of ‘faction’. I think reading ‘The Report’ reminded me of reading, the also wonderful, ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’ by Kate Summerscale which was the opposite of this novel as it was non fiction but read like fiction. Am I making any sense at all? Who else has read ‘The Report’ and what did you think? Which non-fiction books that read like fiction and which fiction books based on fact would you recommend me trying next? Which of the two styles do you prefer?

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Filed under Jessica Francis Kane, Portobello Books, Review