2017 Reviews, Long Fiction

The Vegetarian

After a series of nightmares, Yeong-hye becomes convinced to stop eating meat. Her unconventional and subversive choice throws the people around her into chaos, forcing her to take her personal choice into more extreme and frightening forms of rebellion. This modern South-Korean novel explores Yeong-hye’s choice through the eyes of her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister to provide an allegory of modern Korean culture. The Vegetarian turns an unflinching eye on social isolation, imprisonment, and individuality that transcends culture and speaks to human nature in a deeply personal and frightening way. Read my First Look here.

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Simply put, this book messed me up. It is short and fascinating enough to read in one sitting, and that’s what I did. Yeong-hye’s personal life choice, and how the people around her respond to it, is heartbreaking. The societal response to Yeong-hye has little to do with vegetarianism itself, and more to do with individualism, making this book all too familiar. Yeong-hye’s story is like watching a bird throw itself against a cage until all her bones are broken, and then realizing that every bird feels that same desperate need for freedom. The solution that Han Kang offers to our desire to be free is nothing short of devastating*.

“She was no longer able to cope with all that her sister reminded her of. She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner. And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there.”

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This book reached into me and activated a seething and quiet rage that I think many people, and specifically many women, will recognize as an animal we cradle deep inside ourselves. How we deal with that animal, by letting it free, by feeding it like a pet, or by burying it, is explored through Han Kang’s various characters, most devastatingly in Yeong-hye’s sister in the last section.

“Why, is it such a bad thing to die?”

Many reviews reference Kafka’s Metamorphosis when discussing this book, which I honestly feel is a disservice. Metamorphosis never spoke to me like this book immediately did. The choice to never let Yeong-hye narrate her own story adds another layer of heartbreak, anger, and strangeness, and an additional layer of feminist critique. As I read through reviews for this story, I see a distinct difference in how men and women review this book, and I can’t help but believe that Kang speaks to a distinctly feminine despair and expectation to shoulder the everyday burdens that crush us. Abutilon_-_Flowering_maple

“Look, sister, I’m doing a handstand; leaves are growing out of my body, roots are sprouting out of my hands…they delve down into the earth. Endlessly, endlessly…yes, I spread my legs because I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch; I spread them wide…”

This short book packs a gut-punch that left me in an existential funk for days. While it is not a happy read, I think it is one book I will be forever grateful to have found. It may make you want to abandon everything and everyone in your life, but sometimes that is exactly the kind of book a person needs to read.  The Vegetarian is powerful existential horror with a distinctly feminist lens. It is also just an excellent story, and I’d recommend it to anyone.

Scent Notes: Fresh blood, flower-painted skin, and the forest after rain

*CW: The Vegetarian spends a long time with suicidal ideation, and features suicide attempts in the form of cutting, hanging, jumping, and starvation. In my interpretation, Kang does not discourage any of these behaviors. 5

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2017 Reviews, Long Fiction

When the Moon was Ours

Rumors swirl about odd best friends, Miel and Sam. Sam paints moons to hang in the trees around town and mostly keeps to himself. Roses grow out of Miel’s wrists, and no one knows where she came from before she tumbled out of the town’s water-tower. But as odd as Miel and Sam are, even stranger are the Bonner girls, four beautiful, redheaded sisters who enchant the town and always get what they want. One of the Bonner sisters decides she wants the roses from Miel’s wrists, and the sisters are willing to do anything, and betray everyone, to get them. Read my First Look here. 

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“…both he and she were creek beds, quiet when they were full and quiet when they were dry. But when they were half-full, wearing a coat of shallow water, the current bumped over the rocks and valleys in the creek beds, wearing down the earth. Giving someone else a little of who they were hurt more than giving up none or all of it.”

When the Moon was Ours is a tender exploration of teenage identity and love, with sensual prose and stunning heart. This is the most evocative young adult novel I’ve ever read, and McLemore exhibits precise control over ethereal elements of magical realism,  sensitive portrayal of latinx, Pakistani, and trans characters*, and a very grounded-to-life plot that will remind any reader of being a teenager with secrets to hide. This character-driven romance is simply gorgeous.

“She had left the stars on her skin the whole day, while they let the sun heat their backs. When they ran, her perspiration made the foil shine damp, and it wore the edges of the adhesive, but the little stars stayed. And that night he had lifted each one off her, slowly, so they didn’t pull at her skin… He had mapped her body like a new sky.”

redhead-women-portrait-photography-maja-topcagic-1_zpsbj8kctvfMany things reveal slowly in this story – the backstories of many of the main characters, the secrets held dearly by Sam and Miel, the reason for the Bonner sister’s hostility- each unfurling in their own time, much like the flowers that Miel grows from a wound in her wrist. This book is rich with legends, cultural folklore, family dynamics, and small-town magics.

Unlike many teen romances, this book is not about the tension of ‘will they won’t they’, and there is no flimsy misunderstanding designed to give our characters something to overcome. This book uses love in the best way possible, to explore the strength and resilience of human relationships and the willingness to sacrifice for the people we love.

The two main characters’s love moves from friendship to something more in a slow burn, and this book handles the complexity and earnestness of teen love and sexuality with the respect that teens rarely get but truly deserve. That one character is trans is important, but not treated as a barrier to their relationship or a curiosity to exploit. It was very important to see erotic and meaningful sex on the page for these two characters, and not an ounce of  shaming of teens exploring their sexuality in a consenting and loving way.

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You should read this book. It is threaded with magic and heart, in plot and character and prose. McLemore gives a truly inspiring romance that I’d happily see more relationships modeled after. It reaffirmed my belief that YA can be literary and groundbreaking, and it made my heart ache in the best way.

Scent Notes: Paint thinner in the night air, blood-damp roses, and brown sugar.

*McLemore’s partner is trans, and McLemore is Latina. Her author’s note at the back of this book is, like everything else, beautiful.

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