The Night Tiger: A Novel by Yangsze Choo

39396865

If I’d been named something feminie and delicate like “Precious Jade” or “Fragrant Lily”, things might have turned out differently.

Set in 1930’s colonial Malaysia, Yangsze Choo has written a novel rich in Maylayan folklore, superstition, tradition involving ghosts who interact with the living, a were-tiger on the prowl and intensely realistic dreams. The characters very names are steeped with meaning in the five Confucian Virtues, too.  Houseboy Ren, 11 years old promises his dying master, Dr. MacFarlane that he will find his missing finger, long ago amputated, and bury with his body. The man’s soul cannot rest unless his body is intact, but there are only 49 soul days total for Ren to complete his mission.

Numbers are lucky or unlucky in Chinese culture, Ji Lin has just hit the 44 day mark in her shameful, secret, second job as a dance hall girl at the May Flower Dance Hall, advertised as “instructors” but covertly entertaining men. A job Ji Lin takes to honor her mother’s mahjong debts, hoping her cold stepfather never finds discovers. Working as an apprentice in a dress shop for her mother’s friend Mrs.Tham has been her salvation, yet could never earn Ji Lin enough money, not when most of her payment is made in learning the skill and covering her boarding cost (living in the dressing room). On that unlucky day, the 44th mark, a patron of the dance hall gifts her with a shriveled finger in a glass bottle only to turn up dead the next day! Is it a curse of some sort? His aunt certainly doesn’t want it back, despite claiming it was his ‘good luck charm’. If it’s so lucky, why does she seem horrified by the sight of it?  Ji Lin must discover where it comes from, it’s true owner.

Upon one of her promised visit to her mother in Falim, she finds her stepbrother Shin home from the hospital in Batu where he has a scholarship studying medicine. Further education is closed to her, despite her keen intelligence, as much as marriage to Ming, whom she has loved for a long time. Her life is weighted by bad luck, it seems. Her mother, a beautiful fragile woman remarried after her father’s death to a tin ore dealer widower with a son. With ‘an eye for beauty‘ her mother was one of the few people that could turn the hard man’s eyes soft. Never much interested in Ji Lin, to his own son he is abusive and cruel, making the home anything but a warm, close one. Despite this, Ji Lin and Shin have a unique relationship. Ji Lin searches for the finger’s owner with Shin’s help, siblings who share the same birthday (though not blood related) passing themselves off now as a couple. Under this guise, Ji Lin will find herself tied to Ren as well. What about the boy in her strange dreams, who talks about his brother? In the village where Ren works under a new Master, William, people are turning up dead. All signs point to an animal,  a leopard or a tiger until upon further investigation peculiarities are discovered upon the corpse of a woman (Ambika), the absence of blood despite puncture wounds. Is it a mythical creature killing the locals, or a murderer? Why? Deeming it a suspicious death doesn’t bode well for William who has his own secret ties to the woman. Once the investigator starts digging, as he will, they will discover William’s association to her. The locals are bound to fuel gossip, that it was a “Keramet” (sacred beast). William must maintain his composure. Ren is losing days  he sorely needs to honor his old master’s dying request, working for William. Soon permitted a few days of leave to visit Dr. MacFarlane’s grave, he must use his time wisely and find the finger, which is nowhere near. The tiger, though, occupies his mind as much as William’s, terrified it could it be his old master’s tormented soul in animal form. Ren is a fascinating character in his own right, a twin with a special connection to his brother, there remains a bond that surpasses the limits of this world. With his brother Yi’s death that “beacon” is still shining, but will it guide him in his quest, dim as it’s become?

The characters connections grow stronger, at times dangerously so. There are an untold amount of secrets kept from strangers, family members and even from one’s own self. This novel tackles several subjects such as culture and class but Ji Lin’s desire to have a career, to further her education especially being a female that must fight for what for males are given naturally makes this novel far richer. There is love, but Ji Lin isn’t going to be a swooning character, she is the hero in so many interactions, to my way of thinking. There are admirable qualities in both she and her stepbrother Shin. Being a male he can find his way in the world far easier than Ji Lin, but he has been cowed and brutalized by his father for so long, it’s amazing he has the strength to succeed, that with such an example, he has tenderness inside and cares about Ji Lin’s safety and happiness. Family situations can be limiting, and when the story begins everything seems unlucky and impossible for Ji Lin, but she never gives up. She doesn’t fully undertand her own heart, but will explore love in the most unexpected places while on her journey.

Love, Magic Realism/Supernatural occurences, dreams, spirits, traditions, death, murder… I can’t imagine a reader out there that would be disappointed. There isn’t one moment in this novel that drags, engaging from the first page to the last. Yes, read it!

Publication Date: February 12, 2019

Flatiron Books

Advertisements

The Unhappiness of Being a Single Man: Essential Stories by Franz Kafka, Alexander Starritt (Translator )

41807452.jpg

The longer you hesitate outside the door, the more of a stranger you become.

I don’t know that I would agree these are the best, most essential stories by Kafka but I wasn’t disappointed. This line in Homecoming jumped out at me, it’s such a short ‘nothing’ but poignant with something, “The longer you hesitate outside the door, the more of a stranger you become.” A young man returns home, unwelcome, “I’ve come back”, to his father’s farm, a house with bricks that lie cold against each other as if ‘occupied with it’s own affairs’. It gave me the feeling of being a living ghost, unwanted, a stranger now all the same, and aren’t we all ghosts in a sense when we first return to our old haunts, homes? To family who wants to see nothing but the back of us?

A Report for an Academy is about assimilating as a means of survival and escape from captivity. There are several different suggestions of what the story is about and what Kafka’s inspiration was, it’s worth looking up. Kafka is always saying far more than what is at surface a story about an ape mimicking the human world, conforming to rise above the caged existence, captivity. In a sense he is thumbing his nose at humanity, isn’t he?

The Silence of the Sirens is Kafka’s version of Ulysses. Here Odysseus finds the Sirens silence is as dangerous as their singing. A weapon far more deadly, so much for wax stuffed ears. The saddest story for me in the collection is The Verdict, it begins with businessman Georg composing a letter to his friend who left for Russia and is now stagnating, should he tell his friend of his engagement? His mother is dead, he’s moved in with his father, putting all his hard work in the family business, one wonders ‘did mother keep the peace once?’ Is this meant to be a silly piece, or a disturbing tale between a young son unable to escape his father’s shadow and a weak old man unable to accept his time has passed, jealous of his son’s future, youth? It’s so bizarre, why does George’s father question if his Russian friend isn’t an invention of his own mind, a lie? Why is he so disappointed by his son? Why does Georg obey his father’s verdict as if he is helpless against the tyranny of the old man, as if a child cowering under thunderous anger? Georg’s father emasculates him as only a cruel parent can. Autobiographical. It is well-known Kafka’s father was abusive, that Kafka wrote a letter to his father, that was actually a published book that changes the way you read The Verdict. You want to understand Kafka a bit more, read Letter To His Father by Franz published in 1952. Now I’ve gone and made myself sad! Kafka’s writing always fascinates me because of the many interpretations, so much left to the imagination, all the things left unsaid that the reader is meant to figure out. Is it real or horror or fantasy? It is never what it seems and exactly what it seems.

Paperback available now

Kindle Edition publication: March 5, 2019

Pushkin Press

The Murmur of Bees: A Novel by Sofia Segovia, Simon Bruni (Translator)

42306076

“Nana. What else do you have there?”

Then the bundle burst into wails and frenetic movements.

“He’s hungry, boy,” said Nana Reja as she carried on with her constant swaying.

“May I see?”

As he unrolled the shawl, Francisco and his men at last saw what Nana had in her arms: a baby.

Their horror made them step back. Some of them crossed themselves.

An abandoned, disfigured baby boy mysteriously protected by a living blanket of bees is rescued by Nana Reja in a small Mexican town, October 1910. The woman as old and weathered as a tree, with a long, exhausting life a servitude behind her, has chosen to live out the rest of her days in one spot in a rocking chair outside the storage sheds on the Hacienda Amistead. Her past shed as wet nurse and caregiver for so many children that it’s hard to remember her own baby, so long departed from this world, it’s a miracle that Reja heard the abandoned child’s cries from under a bridge, so far away. It is ominous, unnatural! With fierce determination burning fire in her old heart, she refuses to budge in her plan and thus changes the course of the Morales family when she brings the ‘monstrous’ Siminopio infant home, demanding he is baptized despite the ugly, hateful whispering of the village that the boy is a bad omen. To some, like Francisco’s bitter employee Anselmo Espiricueta, he is “the devil”, will be the downfall of them all. Others are ashamed of their first reaction as they come to care for the strange child.

Francisco and Beatriz adopt Siminopio, whose bees beat within him as strongly as his own heart, guiding and protecting both he and the Morales family as he grows under their care. Soon there is war in their Northern Mexico, men of wealth are a prime target and with pretty young daughters, Francisco knows his girls must be sent away. With the war’s army wanting land, and taking his crops, he has time for his family now like never before and wonders if buying land is an answer.He begins to believe Siminopio and his bees are important to his family, for surely there is a reason he came. He will see that he remains unharmed. Over time the people who are a part of or near the Morales house come to get used to the boy, his deformity less terrifying, his affinity for nature making him a sweet boy one could even feel affection for. Unable to communicate due to his deformity, people underestimate his keen intelligence, his ability to see in others what most people overlook. It is not without sorrow that he lives his life in step with his bees, wishing with all his might he could sing or speak, express himself in ways most take for granted, but it is not to be.

It isn’t a story solely about Siminopio though, every character has their story told, like Beatriz and her youthful longing for a good, solid man for a husband  and finds the best partner in Francisco, so much luckier than other women of the times. But revolutions and epidemics have a long reach, she will endure as she always has, just like the times after the tragic loss of her own father, in years to come. She clings to the past, she is a loyal wife and mother but the fear of giving up her family lands, starting over in an unknown land, shucking off all the old traditions for a new way is not something she wants to entertain. Then comes the fever, and it comes for Siminopio.

Influenza and the Mexican Revolution rip through every character in this novel and no one is unscathed. When fortune takes a bad turn and illness befalls the people, there isn’t time to properly grieve. Survival swamps sorrow, when death is hungry and pity becomes a luxury, because you are all under the same threat. Soon there are more dying or dead than alive but through the stink of death, a miracle gives the people hope, even if the doctor doesn’t believe in such things. The Morales family line is safe, and they owe it to Siminiopio’s fever and Francsico’s swift thinking, abandoning Linares and it’s people just in time. This decision is their salvation, but also inflames an enemy.

It is a story of  one family’s evolution and knowing when to let go , even if it means abandoning the old ways, it is about seeing past your own nose, understanding that fear can cloud your judgement and that beauty and salvation are sometimes found in the strangest of places, and people. It is a window into how animosity is often easier to nurture than accepting  the nature of your own failings, as we see with the envious Anselmo. Tired of waiting for good fortune to smile upon him, disgusted with Francisco’s benevolence, with ‘hand outs’ and making due, working land that will never be his that seems to be taken over by orange groves, helping only the Morales wealth grow while his own life is consumed by loss, he devises a scheme of his own, nurturing too the hatred he feels for the ‘devil’ Siminopio.  It is a story of love, war, illness, nature, revenge and bees. There is magical realism with Siminopio and his beloved bees, but this is more historical fiction. There are many voices telling the tale, a lot of story to sort through but worth the effort. There is beautiful writing and wisdom within, I particularly delighted at the chapter about houses, how they “die when they are no longer fed the energy of their owners.” How houses leave echoes in us, as we leave echoes in them. The invisibility of old age, the ghosts of the past that visit us as memories, even the horrors of time, it’s all written so beautifully.

Publication Date: April 16, 2019

AmazonCrossing

Lake Union Publishing

The Day the Sun Died: A Novel by Yan Lianke, Carlos Rojas (Translator)

39218050

Astonished, I walked out of his room, and saw him heading toward the lake, like a ghost heading toward the grave.

I read somewhere this book has political meaning, and it can certainly be seen in the sleepwalking villagers, not much different from their hard-working daily lives. Going about their business, laboring , as if on automatic, is this the Chinese dream? Are they ready to embrace the modern world, should they, do they even want to? Teenager Li Niannian and his parents run the New World funerary shop, his parents creating Chinese paper offerings for the dead, supplying the deceased with everything they might need in the afterlife. Once, his father secretly aided his uncle by giving news when someone in the village died, denying them their secret burials forcing them to cremate their loved ones. This continues to shame him, and comes to light during the somnambulism of one strange night. The sun has set, but the villagers on the mountainside are acting as though the day is still on, working, some behaving in bizarre ways, finally revealing desires they would never have otherwise acted upon. Some confessing things that have troubled their conscience, much like Li Niannian’s father. But it’s turning dangerous, some are seeking the water, risking their lives. Li Niannian and his family know they must save the villagers from themselves or there will be no one left come morning, if the sun hasn’t truly died. How do you convince people they are not really awake? What if things turn violent, murderous?

Uncle Shao Dacheng is very successful but the villagers don’t want to shirk their traditional burials for cremation, then there is the special corpse oil which is another facet of this surreal story. It turns darkly disturbing as madness ensues, who will save the day? When will this darkest of nights end? Will they ever wake up?

It’s interesting to think of the poverty striken and how politics control their lives, down to how they bury their dead. How little control they seem to have, how true feelings can only arise in a dream state, a repressed people. An original that has more meaning than I can ever hope to explain.

Linake is an award-winning, successful contemporary author in China.

Pulication Date: December 28, 2018

Grove Atlantic

Grove Press

 

 

Malva by Hagar Peeters, Vivien Glass (translated by)

38392509

The moral of the story is that my parents’ mismatch was the result of their individual miseries, and out of this misguided union came an even greater mistake: a misfit, namely me.

It took me some time to flow with the narration. Malva, Pablo Neruda’s abandoned daughter born with hydrocephalus, was his only child, born from his first marriage to María Antonia Hagenaar. In this fictional novel, Malva (named after a pretty flower the malva or mallow) speaks to the reader from the afterlife. She has for company other discarded children of the famous, with stories just as gut wrenching. Having died at only eight years old, this isn’t a happy story by any means. Having recently finished a novel about Albert Einstein, whose youngest son struggled with schizophrenia and was greatly ignored by his father, I was surprised to hear mention of him in this stroy, to see Neruda sharing similar behavior towards his own child with needs. It’s disheartening to know so many great man have ‘excised’ children that didn’t fit the trajectory of their purposeful lives. Like Albert, Pablo Neruda felt passionately about justice and humanitarian rights, his own writing itself became political as he was anti-fascist, particularly after the assassination of his friend and fellow poet Lorca. The man doesn’t need any puffing up from me, there is plenty written about him. What I hadn’t known was his cold indifference to his only child and the cruelty towards her mother. Upon Malva’s death, he didn’t even bother to respond. Her tomb as forgotten in later years. War isn’t an excuse, really, for not once did he do anything to help with Malva’s care. Can his feelings towards her mother really excuse erasing his own (and only) child from his life? It’s hard to reconcile in my mind that a man of great romantic passions, beautiful flowery writing, could have so little room in his heart for his own fragile daughter. “I was named after the mallow. And I turned out as ugly as that flower is beautiful.” Is it really all about a lack of beauty?  Would little Malva have been easier for him to accept if she were a pretty, rosy cheeked doll of a baby? He certainly isn’t the first to cower from the demands of caring for a child with difficulities, be them physical or mental. I am trying to be fair, not everyone has the strength to take on the selfless mantle of caregiver, maybe it was easier for him to re-write his reality, as a form of self-preservation but I am not a psychiatrist, I am just a mother who is appalled.

I don’t imagine fans of Neruda, and I count myself a fan of his writing, would readily wish to embrace this story. It is interesting that people forgive their idols all sorts of heinous behaviors, things the common man could never get away with so freely. I suppose so long as you make your mark, so to speak,your dirty deeds can be erased. My heart really went out to Malva’s mother, Maryka (or Maruca as Neruda called her) who was constant in Malva’s life as much as Pablo was an absence. The doting father at first, then banishing them both with a handy excuse,  as fate would have it the civil war had him ‘packing my mother and me on a train to Barcelona.’ This freed him to be with his lover, Delia. It seems he blamed, in some strange ways, his wife for the happenstance of Malva’s condition. I’ve read other articles about things Neruda has said, done. It doesn’t exactly paint the portrait of a hero. No longer burdened by their presence (it sickens me to think of Malva begging for help, for money that would never come), Neruda was now free.  She took it upon herself with the help of a family who were Christian Scientists to  care for her child Malva until her death at age 8. Malva goes on, within this fictional tale, to tell of the sad life her mother lived after and to follow her father’s political and personal life. Malva is often jealous of the attention he lavishes freely on his two women while she, his pretty little flower,  was left to wilt and die without so much as a mention in his memoirs and books. He is known as one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. He was a Nobel laureate, a diplomat and a member of the Communist party. He took his duties for his country Chile seriously, why not then passion for his helpless child? I guess she was too much of an anchor for a man who traveled the world and was occupied with fights for others. He discarded Delia much in the same way he did Malva’s mother, thrown over eventually for another. Who knows what was in his heart when it came to Malva, he was too busy hiding her. It’s just interesting that a man who wrote so prolifically was silent about his only child. Poor Maryka, because she too deserves her story to be told. That there was a time when Neruda seemed her chance for happiness, with her father and brothers dead, it is heartbreaking that a life so full of promise was instead one of neglect and abuse. Dismissal, banishment, poverty. She worked hard and gave all the money she could for her child’s care, living in a limbo of never knowing for how long her child would remain of this earth, with no family to turn to, no one to support her in her living grief. I can’t even imagine the hardship, the pain. It is my hope that  Hendrik Julsing and Gerdina Sierks (with children of their own) the foster family who took on the care of Malva, were able to be a shoulder now and then.

It’s hard to erase what you learn about someone whose own actions are so contradictory with their public face. This book gives Malva a voice, her father Pablo had his words, a plethora of them, his entire life. In a sense, this is her turn to be heard but mind you, it is fictional. The style isn’t for every reader. I felt like I was one with Malva’s spirit, a shadow over her great father. There are light moments, I was absolutely warmed to my toes to read about  what Roald Dahl (the famed author) helped invent for his own son Theo (a four-month old infant at the time) suffering from hydrocephalus, caused after a taxi cab in New York hit the carriage he was in, while crossing the street. Look it up, not all great man are absent or cruel fathers.

A very heavy, surrealist novel that broke my heart. If only those without voices could have their say in the afterlife.

Publication Date: September 18, 2018

Doppelhouse Press