Tag Archives: postcolonialism

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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Another Country (2012) – Anjali JOSEPH

Moving away from China, and indeed, all of East Asia, I’m continuing my journey down the Man Asian Literary Prize. Anjali Joseph is from Bombay, though went to university in England. Unsurprisingly, then, her fiction deals with the migrant experience in England, exploring the ways in which identity is created by those around you, and by those who raised you.

Leela doesn’t know what to do with her life. Stuck teaching English in Paris, she sleeps with men, but doesn’t feel the need to go anything further. Finding her life in Paris unfulfilling, she returns to England, where she went to university, to see if she can reconnect with her friends, but there is nothing there for her. She decides to move to Bombay, where her parents live, to see if she can reconnect with her homeland. But  nothing is ever as easy as it seems.

Why do we write fiction? To tell a rollicking good story? To tell people about history? Do we do it to explore the human condition? It’s probably a combination of all of these things—and more—but if Joseph is trying to tap in to any of these, she seems wildly off the mark. Certainly this is not what I would term an action-packed novel. Almost nothing of any consequence happens. And it’s not an historical novel, so we’re not looking at the ways in which history mirrors the present. So we’re left with the human condition.

If this is an exploration of the human condition, then it’s a damning indictment of young people today. Though her friends seem to be nice enough people, with stable jobs and stable relationships, Leela finds herself outside the mainstream, because she cannot deal with settling down in either a job or a relationship.

But this isn’t an angry novel. Joseph isn’t aggrieved at her fellow Gen Y kids—or if she is, she doesn’t show it in her writing. Leela is not portrayed as a figure to be pitied or one that should enrage us. Just like Leela, the writing seems apathetic. Joseph is concerned with the minutiae of Leela’s daily life, down to the conversations with her friends about what kind of drink they should get from the bar. We don’t get grand, sweeping statements, and though that’s not what I necessarily look for in a novel, some hints as to what the whole point is would have been nice.

In many ways, the three sections of the novel are informed by the three men Leela finds herself involved with: Simon in Paris; Richard, in London; and Vikram, in Bombay. Each one gets closer and closer to a real relationship, but each time, Leela pulls back at the last minute, unable to commit to any man, or indeed, any other person. She has trouble communicating with anyone in Paris, seems isolated and distant from her friends in England, and spends much of her time in Bombay ill.

Her relationship with Simon starts as something spontaneous and exciting, but all too soon, Leela finds herself wondering and stressing about the boundaries (or lack thereof) in a relationship that has never been defined. Certainly, a modern problem if ever there was one, and a situation that could easily be mined for dramatic fodder. But Joseph pulls back,

An unspecified time jump brings us to London, where Leela has taken up with a man named Richard, though at the beginning, Simon still seems to be in the picture. Richard, unlike Simon, seems to want a serious relationship, though Leela remains unconvinced, to the point where she breaks up with him late one night, unable to explain what it is that went wrong. Needless to say, Richard isn’t impressed with this, and though he tries to fix what is wrong, ultimately, she cannot explicate what it is that she doesn’t like.

We move time and space again, this time finding Leela in Bombay, doing some secretarial work for a small Indian company. In spite of living in an all-female dorm (once again finding herself unable to communicate with the people she lives with), she finds Vikram, and strikes up a relationship with him. It seems to be going well—Leela is introduced to his over-protective, horribly wealthy mother, who doesn’t seem to like Leela at all. In fact, it gets to the stage where they are engaged, but in the end, Leela breaks it off.

Despite her physical movement, Leela remains restless and isolated. In Paris, this can be attributed to her inability to speak French. She cannot talk to people on the street, leaving her with few friends and acquaintances she can call on in times of need. In London, she has been away long enough for her friends to have moved on from her, not in an unkind way, but enough time has passed that they simply find each other to be strangers. Questions of racial identity are brought up—something that we have certainly come to expect from authors that move around the globe like Joseph has done—and while any other author might explore the ways in which race disconnects us in the modern world, this doesn’t seem to be a factor in Leela’s listlessness. It’s decidedly odd. Like so many members of Gen Y, Leela’s formative years have been shaped by movement, and Joseph seems to be suggesting that it is this, not race, class or gender, that has created a generation of people who are more disconnected from one another than ever before. On a personal note, I would politely disagree with this sentiment.

Another Country is not a difficult book to read, but it’s also not really very interesting. I can deal with a book that has no plot, but to then not have much character development either? Leela doesn’t feel any different at the end as she did at the beginning. She hasn’t learned to work at a relationship, she hasn’t come to any great discovery about a modern global identity, she (if we’re going to go all retro about the role of women in fiction) hasn’t even met someone to settle down with. It doesn’t feel like she’s learnt anything about how to live in the modern world, no matter where she finds herself.

It’s all deeply unsatisfying, really.

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Sour Sweet (1982) – Timothy MO

When Timothy Mo’s new book, Pure, came out last year, I was intrigued by its premise. Doing some more research on him, I discovered that he had actually been shortlisted for the Man Booker several times in the 80s, and yet none of his books are still available through a major publisher. All of his stuff is, however, available through his own publishing company, Paddleless Press. So when I found a few Vintage paperbacks of these novels at a recent second-hand book fair, I snapped them up.

The Chen family have just arrived in London. Eager to make a new life—and money—in their new homeland. Lily and Chen, along with their new son, Man Kee, and Lily’s older sister, Mui, live together. Though Chen works at an inner-city restaurant, he has bigger plans, and turns to an unfortunate source of income to make sure his dreams do come true.

I love this family. I love the husband and wife, I love the slightly clingy sister, I love the son with the big son. I love that they are comically dysfunctional, just like every other family in existence. I love that they are the ones who find the English confusing and ridiculous, with their crazy traditions like Christmas. I love that, at the heart of this novel, is an important story to be told, a story that chronicles the journey of first-generation Asian immigrants moving from the colonies to the motherland.

Their journey is, by now, familiar to us all – arguably more so to us Australians. We live in a country where the two largest countries of origin for immigrants are China and India. Asian faces are a part of the Australian experience. So it’s easy to read this book thirty years later and recognise the struggles of first-generation Asian immigrants in a predominately Anglo society.

It’s interesting to look at the way in which the immigrant and non-immigrant halves of London live in this context. When Lily finally sends her son to school, she is worried that he is spending too much time playing and having fun, and not learning things the proper, Chinese way. So she sends him to Chinese school on weekends, so he can have a proper, Chinese education. (This still happens today, of course. Many of my friends went to Chinese school on the weekend.)

Outside these obvious desires to see the next generation of Chinese grow up to have some grounding in Chinese traditions, Lily also finds other, non-Chinese, immigrant groups to be somehow intrinsically nicer than white English people. Perhaps she feels them all to be in the same boat, stuck in a country that is unfamiliar, yet unwilling to leave, because this is where they have chosen to make their new life.

The family is stubborn in its refusal to deal with people outside the family unit, though when they do, it is in exceptional circumstances. Chen, for example, seeks out the Triad for money to buy a house and restaurant so his family can escape the city, while the sisters seek out a friend, Mrs Law, when they need female advice. This relationship becomes particularly important about halfway through the novel when it turns out Mui is pregnant with an illegitimate child that needs to be taken care of. Though we never find out who the father is, I wonder if it is Chen—the two have secret conversations that Lily finds worrying, and are quiet whenever she is around. Or, I’m reading way too much into it.

One of the strengths of this novel is its tone. Mo keeps it fairly light and comical, despite the serious nature of the issues he tackles.  The tension between the husband and wife becomes a comical war of attrition with each side trying to outsmart the other without it being obvious. Ironically, of course, both end up getting what they want, but it takes the wife doing everything she can for this to happen. The tension, too, between the two sisters is deftly turned into a black comedy.

Perhaps the largest comedy fodder, though, is situational. Scenes of the husband learning to drive and failing miserably are hilarious, and the fact that the wife becomes even more adept at driving than he could ever imagine is even funnier, particularly considering the kinds of racial and gender stereotypes to which Asian lady drivers are subject. Funny, too, is the whole political structure of the Chinese restaurant in which Chen first works. The waiters know that the English are more likely to tip, but they can’t believe the kind of food they have to serve to them: sweet and sour pork, chicken with cashews—these are not foods that find themselves on everyday Chinese tables.

This is not to say, though, that Mo reaches for Jacobson style farcical comedy. There are moments of genuine heartbreak, especially when the Triad finally catches up with the husband, culminating in a surprisingly down-beat, and understated finale, in which Lily and Mui never actually find out what happened to their husband/brother-in-law.

I wonder whether excising a large portion of the Triad plotline would make the novel a lot better. Mo breaks up his solid story of a family immigrating to England from Hong Kong with occasional vignettes into Triad meetings where upper-level gangsters talk about the cocaine trade into England from all over the world, and while these things are interesting, they take away somewhat from the main tale Mo is trying to tell. I get that, structurally, he needs to introduce the Triads so he can get his pay-off at the end, but it takes focus away from the main narrative thread, not just in terms of content, but in tone, too.

On a purely personal note, too, Mo refers to the members of the Triad by using the meanings of the characters in which their Chinese names are written, something that has always bugged me. We don’t call Tokyo “Eastern Capital”, or Beijing “Northern Capital”—it sounds dumb. Who knows, maybe it was the way to do it at the time.

Sour Sweet is not a spectacular book, but it is certainly not a bad one. If nothing else, it fills a gap in the British immigrant experience, which so often explores other groups, including those from the subcontinent and from Africa. But it fill it admirably, pulling back from the po-faced, serious semi-autobiographical retellings of immigrant experiences. This does not undermine the serious issues faced by Hong Kongers coming to England, but it places the often comic misunderstandings between two cultures at the forefront.

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Ru (2009) – Kim THÚY

This novel caught my eye a while ago for a variety of reasons. A Vietnamese-Canadian writer, Kim Thúy originally wrote this novel in French in 2009, though it was translated into English in 2011. It was shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2012. I’m a big fan of postcolonial writings, and a short novel on the immigrant experience in Canada struck me as something perhaps something similar to that in Australia.

Nguyen An Tinh was a boat person. Escaping persecution in Communist Vietnam, her family escapes to Canada where they try to build a new life, one they never thought they would lead. But An Tinh finds herself floating through life, unable to put down roots, despite having grown up in Canada, and having two young sons. This is her story, the story of a refugee coming to the West, of a young child growing up, of a mother coming to terms with the realities of being a parent.

I read this short novel in under three hours. It’s easy to read, not just because of how it is set out (Many of the sections are less than a page, more memory fragments or musings about life than true ‘chapters’), but because Thúy constructs a tale that is engaging and well-written, stopping short of over-wrought writing. She sprinkles Vietnamese words and text throughout the novel to create that sense of foreignness that seems to be key to writing an “authentic” immigrant experience. Unrelated to the novel itself – my edition had some weird typographical stuff going on, and I’m not sure the publishers are used to using Vietnamese script in their work, because there were some iffy

Plot is not something this novel has in spades. Or at all, really. Instead, it is a series of jumbled up fragments, things that come to the protagonist as she remembers them. She wants to tell her story, but she finds herself sidetracked by other memories – from both before and after her move to Canada – that are at least as interesting as the glimpses of a privileged life in Canada. It’s an interesting point of view to take—so often, refugees are portrayed as the persecuted poor, but in actual fact, here, the protagonist’s family is the bourgeoisie class in Vietnamese society that was so hated by the Communist regime that took power in 1975. Her life is one of privilege—her mother has never had to lift a finger to do any work in her life, but she teachers her children to do some, perhaps because she is aware that the political situation is fragile.

The journey between this life in Vietnam and her adult life is the least developed section of An Tinh’s life. We get glimpses of the perilous boat trip her family took, as well as her eventual, if gradual, integration into Canadian society. There are scenes of An Tinh finding her feet in school, despite not understanding a word of French; of her teacher calling her parents to make sure she wasn’t eating rice and noodles for breakfast, even though this is a standard Vietnamese breakfast. There are hints of past relationships, of her coming to understand what it means to love and be loved.

What strikes me most of all about her character, though, is her intense isolation from the rest of the world. She is no longer Vietnamese, but does not feel Canadian. She is just as happy sleeping in a hotel bed as she is her own. If she didn’t have children, she wouldn’t be afraid of dying. These thoughts highlight her dislocation and disconnect from the world of the everyday. Thúy equates this isolation with the life An Tinh has lived, with the constant movement she has found herself undertaking, both voluntary and involuntary.

The other story that comes out of this novel is An Tinh’s life now. In many ways, it seems to be defined by her relationship with her two sons, Pascal and Henri. The younger of the two has autism, and in many ways, there is a link drawn between An Tinh’s early inability to understand Canadian society as a foreigner with his inability to read and understand social situations. Both are outsiders, and An Tinh finds herself perhaps more protective of him because she understand what it is like to be shunned by the rest of the mainstream.

By the end of the novel, Thúy has found herself in a rhythm that I wish she had adopted the entire way through: one section talks about her life in Canada, while the next subverts this happy image with an flashback to Vietnam on a similar theme. I like the idea of juxtaposing these two lives, each with its own highs and lows, each complimenting the other in terms of happiness and sadness. I don’t have a problem with the tiny, fragmented narrative, but it jumps all over the place thematically, and if she had started doing this earlier, it would have given the novel a much needed sense of cohesion.

The use of first-person lends an air of intimacy and realism to this autobiographical novel, and Thúy has mentioned that this is a form of fictionalised memoir, based on her own experiences of coming to Canada as an immigrant. It’s a story that maybe isn’t heard often enough—the exodus to the West from Vietnam was a formative experience for the countries that embraced these refugees as much as it was for the refugees themselves. There’s an interesting tale to be told here, and Thúy adds to the narrative with her own tale.

It’s deeply unfair of me to compare this work to another, but I couldn’t help but be struck by how similar this is to Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic, another short novel detailing the immigrant story to North America, told in short, alternating chapters. I love that novel, and sadly, Ru didn’t quite reach the heights Otsuka’s work did. While Otsuka manages to tell the story of an entire generation with heart and with depth, Thúy’s novel just falls short of packing the emotional punch a story like this deserves. But, then, perhaps that’s the point—the life contained in Ru suggests a deeper emotional pain than could ever be described.

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The Garden of Evening Mists (2012) – Tan Twan ENG

I read Tan’s first novel, The Gift of Rain, when it was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2007, and loved it. The evocation of Malaysia after the Second World War, and the repercussions of the Japanese Occupation, were pitched perfectly. So I was happy to see that he has (finally) released another novel – five years after his first. The hardcover edition from Myrmidon Books is beautiful, too, by the way, so if you’re thinking of reading it, check it out.

The first female judge of the Malaysian Supreme Court, Teoh Yun Ling, is retiring, though she seems unhappy about it. In an attempt to stave off an illness creeping into her mind, she begins to write her memoirs, explaining for herself as much as anyone else how she has come to be where she is. How she was rounded up into a concentration camp with her mother and sister during the Japanese Occupation. How she escaped. How she rebuilt her life as a lawyer for those wronged by the Japanese. And most importantly, how she fell in love with a Japanese gardener.

For anyone who has read The Gift of Rain, the territory covered in this second novel is nothing new. As with his previous novel, in which history was a backdrop that permeated the lives of its characters, Tan once again explores the ways in which the Japanese Occupation has shaped and affected not only the big picture politics and culture of Malaysia, but also the ways in which individuals have been influenced by living through the Occupation. What makes Tan’s take on this interesting is that he is keen to not paint all Japanese people as intrinsically evil, and all Malaysians as helpless victims. This is nowhere more apparent here than in the surprisingly complex relationship between Teoh Yun Ling and Nakamura Aritomo. The initial tension between them – for Yun Ling, Aritomo is the epitome of the suffering she endured as a child – is understandable, and had Tan continued in this vein, I would not have been surprised. But instead of taking the easy route, he asks bigger questions of his readers. What happens when you begin to not hate, and in fact, love, a member of a group of people who did such terrible things to you, the physical and metal scars remain with you to this day? Is it possible to find love and redemption with such people? Or can the past never be forgotten?

Tan seems optimistic in his own response to these questions. Yun Ling and Aritomo do fall in love, and they do have a fairly functional relationship, even though others may seem less approving. In that sense, I think he does see a way for reconciliation through forgiveness and discussion, rather than an never-ending, festering hatred of a culture and country that has moved on from its imperial days. Fortunately, Yun Ling is a complex character, and it takes time for her to let go of her memories of the past. It is this that is perhaps the novel’s greatest irony – in a desperate attempt to ensure her story is not forgotten – by others, or by herself – she has to come to terms with these memories that have shaped her, and examine them in a new light. It is not good enough for her to simply wallow in self-pity; she must instead find beauty in the life she has lived, even if it was not something she had planned.

Even though some character names don’t quite ring true for me, you can tell Tan has done a lot of research into Japanese culture. What interests me most is that he has taken two diametrically opposed forms of Japanese artistic expression – gardening and tattooing – and found a way to combine them. I think it’s safe to say no one in Japan would do this, and it’s nice to see outsiders finding ways to appropriate Japanese culture and find news ways to engage with them and reinterpret them. For a variety of reasons, tattoos are considered the mark of the yakuza, or the Japanese mafia, and as such, it is, even today, very rare to see Japanese people with tattoos, particularly full body ones like the ones presented in this novel. I have Anglo friends (that is, people who could not possibly be members of the Japanese mafia) who have been denied entry into public baths in Japan for having a small tattoo on their ankle, such is the cultural connection. (Interesting language tidbit for anyone who cares: the word for tattoo in Japanese, as I was taught, is irezumi [刺青], though here, the word used is horimono [彫り物])

So there’s some kind of beautiful vulgarity in the idea that Aritomo’s garden, Yūgiri (夕霧), should become a kind of shakkei (借景), or borrowed scenery, to complete Yun Ling’s tattoo. It is the restrained that completes the vulgar; the two are intertwined in a way that, for Yun Ling, is inescapable. She has become the literal embodiment of Aritomo’s life’s work, a fact she was certainly unaware of when she agreed to be tattooed. It’s an interesting development, and one that is perhaps symbolic of Tan’s wider writing project – violence and beauty, vulgarity and refinement, binary opposites coming together in post-colonial Malaysia.

Before I finish up, a quick word on the structure of the novel. Perhaps in an attempts to evoke the sympathy of his readers for his main character, Tan jumps quickly and often without warning between several time periods throughout the novel. Just as Yun Ling’s ability to reconstruct her memories in a coherent and reasonable way becomes compromised by her illness, the reader, too, is forced to reconstruct her life without clues.

I apologise for this slightly biased review. There’s a lot more to this excellent novel than a discussion of Japanese aesthetics and culture, but since that’s what I do, that’s what I’ve picked up on for discussion. Malaysia itself gets a good look in, too, and so does South Africa, which is where Tan currently lives. The Garden of Evening Mists is a deeply complex novel that asks many questions of its readers about topics as varied as post-colonial politics to the best way to design a garden.

 

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Embassytown (2011) – China MIÉVILLE

Small note about this review: it is full of spoilers, because I literally cannot talk about the huge ideas and concepts Miéville deals with without going into specifics. So if you want to read this novel – and I really, really suggest you do – just skip to the last paragraph, where I gush some more.

Embassytown is a small human outpost on the planet of Arieka. It is also the birthplace of Avice Benner Cho, a young women with training to fly spaceships through the immer – the space-time vortex. It is also the native planet of the Hosts, mysterious aliens who can only speak Language, requiring specially trained Ambassadors to act as translators. When Avice returns home with her new husband, she does so at the same time as a new Ambassador. A new Ambassador from the outside. A new Ambassador that will bring Embassytown to its knees.

Earlier this year, Christopher Priest, the author of The Prestige, went on a vaguely insulting rant about this year’s Arthur C Clark award. Whether this is simply sour grapes over the fact that his latest novel didn’t make it, we’ll never know. He does, however, make three claims about Embassytown, and I thought it might be fun to look at each in turn, and see if Priest is a raving loony, or someone to whom people should listen.

Priest’s first objection to Miéville’s novel is that it is full of “careless solicisms.” I’m not going to lie – I had to look the word up in a dictionary. Yes, there is the occasional bending of certain grammar rules, along with confusing neologisms, but I wouldn’t expect any good science fiction novel set in the far flung future worth its salt not to try and push the boundaries of the English language – for that is what most characters speak.

Language (and here I mean both language and Language) is obviously central to the novel. Miéville has clearly read a lot of linguistic theory, and wants to talk about it – and as a novelist, the best way for him to do so is to write a novel about it. Who thought linguistic theory could be so interesting? Certainly not I. The idea of a language that must be spoken by two voices is strange enough, but then the idea of language that not only must be spoken by two voices, but by one mind – that is mind-blowing. It brings up questions of identity and communication I had never imagined – if two people are required to speak Language, is one person by his or herself simply a piece of unintelligent meat? That is the fear of humans who cannot speak Language – that the Ariekei see barely even see them.

To counteract this problem, we have Ambassadors. Genetically bred twins/clones/same people, who are taught to speak Language. Their names are plays on two syllable names with which we are already familiar – MagDa, CalVin, BranDon, and YlSyb. It is a social faux pas to speak to them as separate people – for all intents and purposes, they are one sentient being, even when it comes to terms of address. Perfect social conditioning forced upon a group of people living on the edge of the human empire. As the only form of communication between humans and Hosts, they are in a unique position, and are suitably pompous about the whole thing. Of course, as with all good genetic experiments, there is a downside, and the shocking, though ultimately unsurprising truth about how Ambassadors come into being is nicely played.

The reason behind EzRa’s ability to affect the Ariekei in the way it does is fascinating. Two voices, speaking Language in perfect unison, but hating the other the entire time. All of a sudden, Ambassadors take on yet another level of symbolism – this new breed of Ambassador is the part of humanity that hates itself, that cannot stand the sight of its other half, whatever that may be. For Ez and Ra, two men brought together for shady purposes, to then spend time together in order to keep an alien revolt from occurring – it’s going to strain anyone’s relationship.

Priest also derides “lazy writing” as a sign of  Miéville’s unsuitability to be listed for the Award. I must, once again, politely disagree. As we reach the third act, where all hell has broken loose in Embassytown, I couldn’t help but marvel at the precise, intricate structure built into the first two acts. The opening passages, of Avice’s childhood in Embassytown, becoming part of a simile, and meeting Bran, all function as a nice wading pool into the wider imagined world. Or so you think. All of a sudden, every single piece of information you had before is a clue to understanding the addiction of the Hosts/Ariekei, and understanding the possibility of a cure. We shift gears in the second act, when Avice brings her new husband back to Embassytown, and we are set up for what we all know will not be a happy homecoming. But things are afoot in Embassytown, and just as Act One will inform the finale, so too does Act Two. Each part of the puzzle is carefully laid out before us, though we remain completely oblivious as to which parts are important and which are Christie-style red-herrings. Here’s a hint: everything is important. Miéville wastes nothing, and each sentence is a part of a whole that builds to the final dénouement.

If the violence of Bolaño is lauded for being subtle and vague, then we must also praise Miéville for being the exact opposite. There are some truly horrific things that take place in Embassytown. The first is clear and easy – the addiction of the Ariekei to the god-drug EzRa is recounted and described in harrowing detail, and though we could not be any more different – biologically, mentally, or intellectually – it is not hard to feel an indescribable pity and sorrow for what they have become in the name of the colonial project, still alive and well this far into the future. At the same time, though, it is understood that not all humans are bad, just as not all Ariekei are good. Each side fractures into a whole spectrum of ideas about how to stop the war, how to fix the addiction, and how to deal with the other side(s). Naturally, Avice finds herself on the side with the solution, though its not the one I was expecting. I’m curious to head Miéville’s thoughts on the solution with which he came up, because it kind of suggests that Language – the ultimate sign of the Other in this novel – is not a viable option. The only way for the Ariekei to move on is to assimilate into the wider cultural milieu.

Priest’s final objection is “a lack of characterisation,” and alas, this is where I must agree, though it’s not all bad news for Miéville. If there is one flaw in the glass, it is that some of the characterisation is a little light on. Avice herself doesn’t have much of a personality, though her occasional asides in the narrative are a nice touch. She seems to wander through a chain of events, and though she is deeply affected by what is happening – how could you not be? – she maintains a strange sense of detachment.

I’m going to stop here, because I could probably write a thesis on the ideas embedded in this novel. It’s freaking huge. So here are some final comments: Embassytown is a big, sprawling novel of ideas and concepts. Nothing escapes Miéville’s mind – a perfect blend of post-colonial criticism, lingustic fireworks, religious questions, bizarre aliens and a fully-fledged science-fiction world. It is in turns exhausting and exhilarating, and will linger with you long after you have it down. Truly a novel that deserves to be read by everyone.

Yes, there is the occasional bending of certain grammar rules, along with confusing neologisms, but I wouldn’t expect any good science fiction novel set in the far flung future worth its salt not to try and push the boundaries of the English language – for that is what most characters speak.

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