Tag Archives: family

Happy Valley (1939) – Patrick WHITE

I’m a little late to the party, but two years ago, Text Publishing managed to wrestle the publishing rights for Patrick White’s first novel, Happy Valley, out of his cold dead hands. For the first time in many decades, all of his oeuvre is in print. But so much secondary work has sprung up around White since then—what does rereading his first novel achieve that reading his later, more famous work, doesn’t?

Happy Valley is a small town nestled in the Snowy Mountains of Australia. There, people go about their daily lives, like millions of others around the world. Like those others, they have hopes and dreams that will take them far away from the tight-knit community that stifles them. But life is not always pleasant for dreamers, and the realities of the harsh life of country living

The opening sequence of the novel—a beautiful piece in which a bird flies over the town—sets the tone for the rest of the novel—as the eagle soars above Happy Valley catching glimpses of its inhabitants, so too do we as readers get taken on a tour of the lives of these people trying to survive. There is a fine line to balance when writing novels constructed around various threads: too similar, and they all blur; too disparate, and the work feels disjointed and unstable. White manages to keep his threads mostly under control, as the camera swings around the town to focus, one at a time, on his cast of characters.

Though there is no one character that stands as a perfect surrogate for White himself, it is clear this his own frustrations with a small-town mentality manifest themselves in the hopes and dreams of almost every character. Each is trapped in their own responsibilities, unable to find any way to escape their own special prison. This feeling of oppression is helped by ensuring the action takes place in the two most oppressive seasons: winter and summer. The Australian summer’s heat is well-documented in art, but the cold and isolation of a winter in the Southern Highlands is perhaps less well known.

It is all too easy to see what you want to see in Happy Valley, particularly if you are aware of the legacy that would eventually make Patrick White famous: the ability to evoke Australia’s landscape (that would set the course for almost all modern Australian literature); the desire to explore what it means to be an outsider in Australian society; as well as a playfulness in structure, which allows him to both confuse and amaze the reader in equal measure. It is also perhaps the least complex White I have read, making it a perfect jumping-on point for anyone wanting to discover one of Australia’s greatest authors.

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The Son (2014) – Philipp MEYER

Better people than me have tackled this book in better pieces, and there is no way I can get through the complexity of this novel in 500 words. As such, I’ve chosen to pull out a few themes that resonated with me, and go from there.

About halfway through The Son, Peter’s Mexican mistress, María, turns to him and says: “You think that talking about this will allow me to forgive you. Telling you changes nothing.” I wonder if Meyer believes this, because this book does an excellent job of talking about it—where it is the history of Texas. Just as The Secret River eviscerated Australian history for all of us here, The Son lays bare the sins of the history of Texas for all to see. Meyer doesn’t do it to seek forgiveness, but to remind us of the sins upon which Texas is built.

Each of the main characters—Eli, Peter and Jeannie—are alive in a time of great change. Eli is alive to see the near-genocide of the Native American tribes that, for so long, managed and controlled the lands; Peter, to see the lengths white Americans will go to in order to maintain their control; and Jeannie, to see the complete modernisation of the Texan economy, from farming to oil.

This is a novel about white privilege, and how that creates power imbalances. Though the three main characters are each, in their own way, outsiders—Eli was brought up by the Comanche; Peter is a pacifist with liberal tendencies; and Jeannie is a woman—again and again, we are reminded that, in the face of true discrimination, this is irrelevant. They are allowed to be in these positions because they are part of a rich, white family. They are part of the movement that obliterated the Native American population first, and then drove out the Mexicans. And I don’t think Meyer sees this changing any time soon—the sting in the tail of this novel is the few chapters from a fourth point-of-view character that reminds us all that Texas, and America, have a long way to go in dismantling that privilege.

That does not mean that Meyer portrays the Native American tribes and Mexicans that populate this book as angelic figures, as victims unable to stop the onslaught of the big scary white men. The Comanche, in particular, are given ample page time to breathe, and as Eli becomes one of their own, it becomes clear that there are, in fact, very few differences between them and the Europeans seeking to destroy them. Both groups commit heinous crimes to ensure their enemies remain subdued, and both have complex honour codes that require men to be men.

In the end, this is a novel about power. It shows us how power beguiles those who crave it, and reminds us how, in the process of taking it, power dehumanises us all. The McCullough family might have ended up one of the richest and most powerful families in all the land, but these stories show that, just under the surface, they have had to sell their souls to get there. None of the three main characters are close to their spouse or children—in the pursuit of power, they have had to sacrifice those closest to them.

Philipp Meyer’s ability to deftly balance the ostensible positives of modernisation with the atrocities committed in order to ensure its progress is a sight to behold. The Son marks him out as one of the most interesting and gifted chroniclers of modern American history.

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Quesadillas (2012) – Juan Pablo VILLALOBOS

I have a great deal of respect for indie publishers And Other Stories. I admire their philosophy towards the promotion and translation of world literature. Most of the time, though, their personal tastes and mine are at odds. I can now say, though, with great pleasure, that I have read an AOS book that I enjoyed immensely.

The second in a loose trilogy of Mexican ‘state of the nation’ novels, Quesadillas follows thei childhood of a young boy growing up in the slums on the outskirts of a big city. His life changes forever, though, when two things happen: a rich family buy the plot of land next door, and his younger twin siblings go missing in a supermarket riot.

There’s a lot to love here. What strikes one first upon entering is the clarity of voice Villalobos (and Rosalind Harvey, the translator) has created. The sardonic, sarcastic of a man looking back on his vaguely ridiculous childhood is perfectly capture in Orestes’ narration of several key episodes, from the first time the family meet their new rich Polish neighbours, to his own experiences artificially inseminating cows.

The situations in which Orestes finds himself are regularly ridiculous. The scene in which his younger siblings go missing is chaotic and rushed, and there is a sense of the uncontrollable when Villalobos turns his eye to the poor Mexican masses trying to deal with their daily lives. It sets off Orestes and his older brother, Aristotle, on a wild goose chase involving aliens, UFOs and crazy cults that eventually sees the disappearance of another two siblings.

At the heart of the comedy and insanity that shoots through the novel is the quite serious discussion Villalobos wants us to have about class and social mobility in contemporary Mexico, particularly about slum gentrification.

The titular foodstuff is, of course, a rather long extended metaphor for the economic state of the family. It’s a small thing, but it’s a reminder that, unlike so many novels grappling with the past, Villalobos is more concerned with looking at history from the bottom up. Though politicians are present (one particularly memorable scene sees our narrator meet a politician and have perhaps the most bizarre conversation in the entire work), for the most part, they remain external to the action. This is a story where the economic and political circumstances of the time are the background to the story of real people who are directly and indirectly affected by these macro changes.

Orestes’ family is desperately concerned with keeping up appearances, particularly with the arrival of the middle-class neighbours who build a house next door. Though there are only three in the family, their house is more massive than our narrator’s. Desperate to not look poor, Orestes’ family insist that they are middle-class, despite clear evidence to the contrary.

As everything around Orestes slowly unravels, the ending hurtles towards the insane. Somehow, though, Villalobos makes it work. There are hints of absurdism through most of the novel, but for the most part, they remain nothing more than hints. This quickly goes out the window in the final sequence, in which all hell breaks loose, and any attempts to classify this as social realism masquerading as satire go with it.

Quesadillas marks Juan Pablo Villalobos out as a talent to watch. I’ve not read his first novel, but I will certainly be keeping an eye out for it. And if And Other Stories knows what’s good for them, they’ll keep him on their books as he hopefully grows into an important voice coming out of Central America.

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A Tale for the Time Being (2013) – Ruth OZEKI

For those who don’t know, this is Murakami bingo. It’s a humerous take on the fact that every Murakami novel is exactly the same. In his defence, the ratio of elements is occasionally changed—some have more cats, others more weird sex with young girls. Seriously, the day that man wins the Nobel Prize will be a sad day for literature.

My point is that Murakami has (indirectly) been responsible for what people consider Japanese literature to be. As such, people wanting to write about Japan are judged to either be Murakami-esque or not. I haven’t read any of Ruth Ozeki’s other novels, but if they’re anything like A Tale for the Time Being, it would be safe to label her Murakami-esque.

Fortunately, Ozeki manages to rise above the superficial similarities between her and Murakami by actually placing themes and ideas underneath them. Her interrogation of the stress placed on certain kinds of people in contemporary Japan seems more real than any of Murakami’s disenfranchised protagonists.

The symbol of the run-down salaryman as a stand-in for all the oppression in modern Japan was tired ten years ago. Nao represents a much more modern problem: that of the kikoku shijo (帰国子女). These kids are the offspring of enterprising Japanese parents who were brave enough to move overseas and put their kids into a non-Japanese school. For various reasons, when these kids eventually return to school in Japan, they are bullied mercilessly for the simple fact that they left Japan. Nao’s treatment at the hands of her classmates and teachers is horrific, and the fact that she considers suicide as an option should come as no surprise.

Competing against this tale of Japan is the tale of Ruth Ozeki, a Canadian author who finds Nao’s diary washed up on the beach of the island she and her husband live on. She is explicitly made the reader of Nao’s diary, which opens with a direct invitation to be her reader. It’s an interesting way to construct a novel. There’s a nice sense of immediacy when Nao uses the second-person to talk directly to the reader of her diary, a sense that is lost immediately when that reader is Ruth, and not us. I’m not sure it’s strictly necessary, and personally, I would have been just as happy to have a novel half the size, with Nao talking directly to me.

Having said all that, it is easy to understand why Ozeki included this parallel story. Various interviews with her suggest that she, too, was struggling to start another story after finishing her previous novel several years ago. And so Ruth the writer becomes Ruth the character, and in the spirit of the Japanese form, the 私小説 (watakushishōsetsu)—a form that is named in Time Being—Ozeki writes about her own life in a fictionalised, stylised version.

My final point, and this is a small one, is that I found the hundreds of footnotes wildly intrusive. But that was because I actually speak Japanese, so didn’t need the glosses. I did like the occasional forays into script in the body text, though. It’s probably the only time a book with Japanese script in it is going be shortlisted for the Booker.

For sheer novelty factor alone, A Tale for the Time Being should be a strong contender for this year’s Booker. But behind the novelty of having what is essentially a Japanese novel on the shortlist is a novel that actually tries to dissect a whole load of things, from contemporary Japanese society to small-town Canadian culture, from weird animals to bullish teenage girls.

Finally, I don’t know how Text managed to do it, but the Australian cover is about a thousand times better than any other region’s.

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Death of a River Guide (1994) – Richard FLANAGAN

Aljaz Cosini is in something of a spot of bother. He is lying at the bottom of the Franklin River, trapped under a rock. He is dying. But something strange is happening. Instead of blacking out, he finds himself having visions he cannot control. As the history of his ancestors flashes before his eyes, he is forced to examine his own life.

Those of us on the mainland have a tendency to mock Tasmania, I think, for a whole variety of reasons. But there is something to be said for the strength of a Tasmanian identity over an Australian identity, and Flanagan does his darndest in this novel to create a Tasmanian literature, removed from mainstream Australian literature.

There are, of course, similarities to what we might term traditional tropes of Australian literature: a violent colonial history; an uneasy relationship between white and non-white Australians; and a contemporary society struggling to come to terms with these things. But Flanagan reappropriates these into a uniquely Tasmanian context, tracking them through almost the entire history of the tiny island, as well as through the history of the people throughout history who have emigrated to the land to find a new life.

It’s startling (and, quite frankly, a little depressing) to realise that Death of a River Guide is Flanagan’s first novel. Not only is he in complete command of the language—in his descriptions of Aljaz’s interiority as well as his bountiful descriptions of the Franklin River and its surroundings—but structurally, too, the novel is almost perfect. The series of seemingly random flashbacks through Tasmanian history experienced by Aljaz as he lays dying slowly shimmer into order. As the history of Tasmania becomes the history of his ancestors, so too do the dark secrets of Tasmanian history become the dark secrets of Aljaz’s family. Things Tasmania has tried to hide are things hidden from Aljaz as a child, but like all family secrets, they eventually come out.

Again and again, Flanagan connects Aljaz’s feeling of isolation to his time away from the Tasmanian landscape. It is only when Aljaz comes home, to where he belongs, that he is able to feel calm once again, and come to terms with what has happened to him. In fact, it is not until the very end of the novel when Aljaz is able to fully accept his life, mistakes and all. It takes his coming to a point just moments before death at the hands of the natural environment to allow himself forgiveness. Aljaz’s existential epiphany comes as he is submersed in a uniquely Tasmanian river. It’s a powerful image, and one that hijacks tradition and reappropriates it into an Antipodean context.

I don’t think Richard Flanagan wants us all to almost drown in a freezing river on the west coast of Tasmania, but he certainly wants us to think more closely about the relationships between individuality, family, nature and history. Death of a River Guide deals deftly with the complexity of these relationships, and proves that Richard Flanagan is one of the best contemporary Australian novelists.

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Anatomy of a Night (2012) – Anna KIM

I’m a big believer in translating fiction, for a variety of very boring reasons. I’m always happy, then, when a new publisher pops up to specialise in translated fiction. And while Frisch & Co. do not yet have any Asian fiction on their list, they do have an impressive line-up of writers from European languages. One of these is Anna Kim, a South Korean-born Austrian writer, who steadfastly refuses to write about her roots, a decision I applaud heartily.

Each year in Amarâq, a town in Greenland, there is one night in which a series of suicides takes place. They are not planned or discussed beforehand—they simply happen—and no family in the town is left untouched. Anatomy of a Night takes us on a guided tour of Amarâq, and asks us to question why this horrific event keeps happening.

There can be no question as to who the main character of this novel is. Amarâq is fictional town in which Kim sets her novel, and it is Amarâq that gives us the most material to examine. It is bleak, it is depressing, and there are almost no redeeming features. Kim populates the city with grey people—not in a literal sense, of course, but in their unrelentingly bleak outlook on life, and their resignation to a life that will never come to anything more than being able to eke out a living amongst the detritus of other people around them.

Amarâq is not just the city; the surrounding landscape also becomes a part of this setting that takes people in and spits them out. Though some people venture out of the ramshackle collection of building that forms the settlement, they are invariably attacked or eaten by a polar bear, and made to return.

I’m not sure if this comes off as slightly off, but it’s interesting and fascinating to see the collision between traditional Greenlandic culture and contemporary life, particularly when it comes to suicide and death. Each of the suicides seems somehow inevitable. Some people with Inuit heritage see their lives as continuing after death, and the allure of a place where material poverty becomes immaterial, a place where they can be reunited with their loved ones, is more tempting than the

Though Kim never explicitly states it, much of the troubled state of Amarâq can be traced back to the original sin: the colonisation of Greenland by the Danish. Wilfully ignored by the central government. It’s not a new story, but Kim’s evocation of a town gone to the dogs because of policies that have been designed with prejudice in mind is careful and deliberate.

All of this is wrapped up in a writing style that marks Kim out as unique among a chorus of voices writing about the postcolonial context. Cormac McCarthy would be proud to see another write take up with gusto the follow-on sentence: Kim’s words flow across the page, never-ending, in their glorious descriptions of place and character. Full marks to her translator, Bradley Schmidt, who had managed to wrangle the German into gorgeous English.

Anatomy of a Night is not an easy read. It is complex, and demands both patience and intelligence from its reader. But if you are willing to take the plunge, to dedicate some time to it, you will be rewarded tenfold. Beautiful and horrific in equal measures, this novel marks Anna Kim out as a talented writer, and Bradley Schmidt as a talented translator. It is a novel I look forward to revisiting in the future.

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The Spinning Heart (2012) – Dónal RYAN

The book I’m most looking forward to reading on the Man Booker longlist this year, The Luminaries, still hasn’t been released in Australia, so I’m biding my time reading other, smaller entries on the list. Dónal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart is a debut novel, and one of three Irish authors to be longlisted. But while Colm Tóibín and Colum McCann deal with history in their entries, Ryan’s novel is about contemporary Ireland, about the fallout from the European Financial Crisis.

A new housing development in Ireland has collapsed in the wake of the European Financial Crisis, and no one is safe from the effects. Builders, property developers and young mothers have all found themselves poorer because of the forces of globalisation, and they are quickly discovering that life in the new paradigm takes some getting used to.

My engagement with Irish fiction and literature is limited, to say the least, but I couldn’t help but feel that Ryan seemed to be pulling out all the clichés people might usually associate with it. The novel’s tone is unrepentantly bleak, and no one seems satisfied with their lot in life. To be fair, almost every character’s life is far from ideal—and I’m not advocating some kind of false hope—but this is just another long line of Irish novels that feeds into the idea of depressing Irish literature (see also, The Gathering and The Dead School). We can be thankful the characters in The Spinning Heart made it through their journeys without any hint of sexual assault.

I wrote a few weeks ago about Kristina Carlson’s short novel, Mr Darwin’s Gardener, and the lack of clarity that work had because of its fractured narrative structure. In many ways, The Spinning Heart suffers from the same structural problem. In his attempt to highlight just how many have been adversely affected by the collapse of the housing market in Ireland, Ryan fails to make his readers care about anyone in particular. By dehumanising the individuals in his tale, he highlights the fact that this is a national problem, a conundrum that has affected everyone in Ireland, no matter what they do or who they are.

What strikes me as most interesting in this novel, though, is the construction of a masculine identity in contemporary Ireland, particularly in younger generations. Left without jobs to go to , many men who might otherwise have found employment in the construction and physical labour industries are left to either scrounge for the few positions that still exist, or move to Australia. (As a Sydneysider, I can vouch that the latter option is based on real life.) No longer able to provide for their families, they spend their days in bars, chasing women, or trying to woo back women they’ve hurt in the past.

The picture of Ireland Ryan paints in The Spinning Heart is not a pretty one. People have been reduced to nothing but ciphers in a society where no one has answers to the problems. They have been promised all the riches of capitalism, and those promises have come crashing down faster than anyone could have imagined. And while Ireland’s national psyche is impeccably evoked, this occurs at the expense of relatable, interesting characters.

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The Blind Man’s Garden (2013) – Nadeem ASLAM

My pick for last year’s Man Asian Literary Prize, Uzma Aslam Khan’s Thinner Than Skin, was a beautiful evocation of a less-than-well-travelled part of the world—the dangerous mountains on the borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Reading that opened my eyes to a part of the world about which I know nothing. I was excited, then, to see that Nadeen Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden was set in the same place.

In the wake of terrorist attacks in New York in 2001, two Pakistani brothers walk across the border into Afghanistan. They are not there to take up arms, but to help the wounded civilians caught up in the American invasion.

It tries to reach similar heights to one ones Khan’s achieves, but never manages to provide the reader with an emotional centre into which we can fully immerse ourselves. The story itself should be touching—it is the story of mistaken identity in a world torn apart by sectarian violence, where protestations of innocence fall on deaf ears. It is not limited to American misunderstanding of who is a terrorist and who isn’t—the Taliban are on the warpath, and anyone considered to be an American sympathiser is not safe.

Ostensibly the biggest problem with the novel is the way in which it is structured. In the first section, we are introduced to a family—the father, Rohan, whose wife’s death has forced him to question his beliefs in God; his biological son, and his adopted son. After the attack on New York on 9 September 2001, the two brothers decide to go to Afghanistan to help the sick and the injured.

So we spend almost a quarter of the book getting to know these two characters, only for at least one of them to be torn away from us. Why should we, as readers, continue to invest our emotion and thoughts into a novel that is willing to kill off a character it has set up as a protagonist so early?

The rest of the novel deals with the repercussions of this death. This, in itself, is not a bad choice, but I am yet to understand why Aslam waited this long to get to the heart of the narrative. Many of the reactions to his death are touching, and recounted deftly by Aslam, whose control of the English language is exquisite.

Most of my problems with the novel could easily be solved in one of two ways. The first is to simply eliminate the first section, and let the reader deal only with the fallout of an undeserved death on a grieving family. The other option is simply to rearrange the chapters slightly so Jeo’s story is told in flashback, slowly allowing us to understand who he was to those who remain.

Form and function are always bound tightly. The function of Aslam’s novel is to highlight to us the grey nature of right and wrong in a world where violence begets violence. It’s an admirable theme, and one that we would all do well to consider more often, particularly in the case of religious extremism. But his choice of form lets him down, and the meat of the novel doesn’t start until well after it should have. It is this that remains the fatal flaw for The Blind Man’s Garden.

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Floundering (2011) – Romy ASH

The Miles Franklin Award is being announced this week, and the last book I have to read on the shortlist is Romy Ash’s Floundering. It’s also been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize, was longlisted for the Stella Prize, and was just yesterday shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, so clearly some judges around the world are quite liking it.

As Lisa mentioned in her review of the novel, Floundering is the latest in a long line of Australian novels that deal with depressing stories about abandoned children going on their own journey into the wilderness—see, for example, Favel Parrett’s heartbreaking Past the Shallows, and Patrick Holland’s depressing The Mark Smokes Boys. I loved both of those books, so I went into Floundering read to be amazed, and to need a box of tissues at the end.

Whisked away from the comfort of their grandparents’ house, Tom and Jordy find themselves on a road trip to the coast with their mother—the mother they last saw a year ago when she dropped them off without so much as a goodbye.

In many ways, Floundering acts as the mirror image of Past the Shallows. While Parrett focuses on the absence of a mother, Ash explores what it is like to have a mother, but one that is wholly unsuited to the job. Make no mistake, Loretta seems to (mostly) care for her two sons, but for whatever reason—wisely left unsaid by Ash—she cannot make the connection between emotional caring and actual parenting. Too caught up in her own issues, she cannot see what she is doing to slowly destroy the lives of her sons.

I’ve made clear before my feelings about child narrators, but fortunately, Tom never seems annoying, whiny or precocious. He reacts to the world around him in a depressing realistic way: his inability to understand what is going on around him, particularly when it comes to his mother, is palpable. In the first part in particular, his innocent willingness to believe his mother is back for good hits you right in the gut.

Sadly, the second half of the novel is not quite as good as the first. Loretta once again runs out on her sons, leaving them to their own devices in a rundown caravan park. Though they wander aimlessly through other families’ Christmas and New Year celebrations, they survive off the few cans of cold baked beans and the slowly emptying container of fresh water. In an attempt to find their mother, they hitch a ride with the dodgy man.

Unlike Parrett or Holland, Ash doesn’t feel the need to crush her readers with an ending that is horrendously bleak, though she would easily be forgiven had she chosen to. Turning convention in its head, Tom and Jordy reach out to find help. It’s a subtle reversal, but it’s nice not to need counselling after finishing a novel of this kind.

Floundering close to being perfect. Though the genre Ash works in is hardly new or revolutionary, the first half hits all the right notes, and elicits a deep, emotional response. Though the second half doesn’t quite live up to the promise, Floundering marks Romy Ash out as a writer to watch.

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Pow! (2003) – MO Yan

Mo Yan’s winning of the Nobel Prize probably couldn’t have come at a better time for Seagull Books, who released this Mo novel several weeks after the award was announced. This was good for them for a variety of reasons, I imagine, not least because they are a university press, so they were always going to have trouble competing in terms of marketing and promotion. That, (and I say this as a recovering bookseller), and the fact that this novel would be super difficult to hand-sell.

The first, most blindingly obvious thing, about this novel is the meat. There is so much talk about meat, about eating meat, about cooking meat, about consuming meat, it can get quite overwhelming at times. Don’t get me wrong—I’m no vegetarian—but Mo really hammers home this obsession with meat that has taken over Slaughterhouse Village and Luo Xiaotong.

Obviously we can’t take the novel at face value. The whole concept is so ridiculous, we have to look further, dig deeper in the symbolism behind the magical realism at work here. Fortunately, it is not that hard to make the leap Mo wants us to make. The meat, and the obsession behind it, can be seen as a symbol of modern, developing China, and the desire for more wealth and more material gains. It is because of the meat, and the meat industry that has sprung up in Slaughterhouse Village, that people are becoming rich. And, of course, with people being the way they are, as soon as they get some meat, they want more and more and more.

At the centre of this obsession lies Luo Xiaotong, a young boy whose own obsession with eating meat leads him to great fame and wealth. Comparisons have been made to Gunter Grass’ absurdist masterpiece The Tin Drum. The comparisons are apt. Despite only being 12 years old, Xiaotong somehow manages to be given control of the entire meat packing plant, because he is able to consume vast quantities of meat (his skills are tested in several meat eating competitions with grown men)

Much of the horrific novel is horrific, not necessarily in a visceral sense, but in a human sense. Tagged on to this satirical view of development in China is the story of Luo Xiaotong’s family, and the fractious relationship between his mother, his father and his younger half-sister. In many places, it is quite touching, and Mo really goes to town on those fathers that leave young families simply for the sake of their own happiness.

Not that there aren’t scenes that won’t make your stomach turn. One in particular left me feeling unwell: the graphic description of the way in which the new meat-packaging plant, built to accommodate larger demand for exotic meat, pumps water not into dead meat, but into live animals, so it can be said they are not filling their meat with water to trick customers. Of course, the flip side

You’ll note I’ve avoided mentioning the elephant in the room that seems to come saddled with every Mo Yan review: that, because he is a member of the CCP, he can’t possibly be a good writer. I don’t buy that, so I’m moving swiftly on. Dylan Suher has an interesting article about it published in Asymptote here.

There is no escaping the fact that Pow! is bizarre. It is big, bold, and often confusing. But it is quite unlike any other Chinese fiction I’ve ever read. He might not be writing the biting social commentary we have all come to expect from contemporary Chinese literature, but Mo Yan has a gift that is undeniable.

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