Quick Review – Han Yujoo’s The Impossible Fairy Tale

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Han Yujoo (author), Janet Hong (translator), The Impossible Fairy Tale, Graywolf Press, 2017. 214 pgs.

Underneath the brightly colored cover of this book is a satisfyingly dark novel. It was a little too meta for my brain, so I had to read other published reviews to wrap my head around this. I also listened to this interview with the author herself, found at this link.

The first part of the novel is a morbid story of young elementary school children, mainly focusing on a girl named Mia and another girl simply referred to as “the Child”. We then go to metafiction territory in the second part.

I like Han Yujoo’s creative style in this novel. It’s different and refreshing, though it might test the patience of some readers. Some paragraphs are deliberately repetitive and there’s also lots of wordplay going on. Ineluctably, some nuances will definitely be lost in translation, so credits to translator Janet Hong for keeping the English version as faithful as possible to the original in Korean.

One example of wordplay is the recurring references to dogs in the novel. In the interview I referenced above, Han briefly explains this: “Dog” in Korean is 개 (gae / geh) while “the Child” is 그 아이 (geu ah-ee). Say “그 아이” fast, over and over, and the resulting contraction becomes “개”. Interesting.

For now, this is all I can make of The Impossible Fairy Tale. To appreciate this more, I’ll be reading this again when my “pending-to-read” list becomes more manageable. Hopefully, I can write a more thorough analysis in the future.

LitHub has an excerpt here.

Review – Han Kang’s The Vegetarian

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Han Kang (author), Deborah Smith (translator), The Vegetarian, Hogarth, 2016. 188 pgs.

Cha: An Asian Literary Journal has published my review of last year’s Man Booker International Prize winner, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. Full review is found here.

As a fan of Asian literature, I’m really glad that more and more Korean novels are being translated into English and being shared across the globe. By writing this review and having it published in a platform with a wider audience than this blog, I hope to have contributed even just a little to the overall worldwide discussion of Asian literature in translation.

It was quite challenging to analyze this novel and admittedly, this won’t be my favorite work by a Korean author. I will however say that The Vegetarian will go down as one of Korean literature’s most important works.

The Night Also Dreams: Haruki Murakami’s After Dark

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Haruki Murakami (author), Jay Rubin (translator), After Dark, Vintage, 2007. 244 pgs.

A few years back in high school, After Dark served as my official introduction to Haruki Murakami’s fiction. As a less mature reader at that time, it initially ran counter to my expectations of it being some edgy urban thriller. Reading it a second time a while back, I found a whole new appreciation to it, as it has easily become one of my favorite Murakami novels due to its simplicity and subtlety. Recently, I gave it a third read and thought I should write a review to gather my thoughts and make an analysis.

After Dark zooms, pans, and watches over late night Tokyo over a roughly seven-hour time frame, beginning just before midnight and ending at sunrise. Murakami observes and explores the urban setting during these nocturnal hours while digging for the surreal in deserted offices, bathroom mirrors, and television screens. His typical artful mix of realism and surrealism creates an overall dreamlike affair within a well-paced and efficient narrative. Elements of Murakami’s characteristic style—magic realism, pensive characters, jazz music—are ever present, if not subdued. In After Dark, it’s the night that takes center stage.

From the opening, the night is kept alive as the city pulses: “Midnight is approaching, and while the peak of activity has passed, the basal metabolism that maintains life continues undiminished, producing the basso continuo of the city’s moan, a monotonous sound that neither rises nor falls but is pregnant with foreboding.” Across the narrative, we get to tour around a certain city district, visiting places that contribute to that “basso continuo” of the nighttime: A Denny’s diner, a love hotel named Alphaville, an all-night convenience store, among others, not to mention the souls that stay awake during this time, for various reasons.

It’s also a rare Murakami novel that is narrated in the third person, with particular significance. The narrator is an abstract point-of-view, taking on a role equivalent to that of a camera director of a television broadcast. Like it or not, we are part of this abstract being comprised of the narrator and the reader. “We” and “our” are used often by the narrator/observer for emphasis: “Redundant though it may sound, we are sheer point of view. We cannot influence things in any way.” This sense of voyeurism (and our apparent participation in it) is a recurring theme in the novel.

The focal point of the narrative is the Asai sisters—nineteen-year-old Mari and twenty-one-year-old Eri—who couldn’t be any more different. We first encounter Mari reading a thick novel while sipping coffee at a Denny’s until an old acquaintance, Takahashi, joins her at her table. This young man Takahashi and Mari had been paired up in a double-date before, which also involved Eri and her then-boyfriend. The two of them briefly chat about Eri and other topics while Takahashi downs a quick meal. When he leaves, Mari  then gets sucked into a brief adventure of having to translate for a bloodied and beaten-up Chinese prostitute at a love hotel. This gets the ball rolling as Mari jumps around the late night establishments, with a revolving door of characters engaging her in dialogue, including the owner and an employee of the Alphaville love hotel.

In her several conversations across the night, Mari often mentions how she and Eri “live in different worlds.” To put it simply, Mari is the brainy type—studious, fluent in Chinese—while Eri is the pretty face with a modeling career. Though these differences in characteristics and personality are merely superficial, the rift between the two sisters runs a lot deeper, reaching into an emotional level. Both sisters yearn to close this emotional gap between them but both seem not to know how.

There’s reason for why Mari is out in the streets at nights. She couldn’t sleep and doesn’t want to go home because she couldn’t bear her sister’s condition—Eri has been sleeping at home for two months. As point-of-view, we get to observe Eri’s room every now and then. This is mainly where Murakami plays around with his signature surrealism. “Clearly, something here is incompatible with nature,” the narrating observer teases. There’s a mysterious television set in the room, where a masked man is displayed on screen, seemingly watching over Eri’s sleep. At one point, Eri gets transported into some other world inside the television. This whole sequence is cryptic, although its apparent metaphorical value is hinted at:

“Around us, cause and effect join hands, and synthesis and division maintain their equilibrium. Everything, finally, unfolded in a place resembling a deep, inaccessible fissure. Such places open secret entries into darkness in the interval between midnight and the time the sky grows light.”

Perhaps it really is unnecessary to explain these strange events, just like how dreams also go beyond explanation. When we dream, an infinite number of realms open up and arbitrariness is imposed upon us. In After Dark, Murakami tastefully imagines this notion into the nighttime setting. There’s something about the night’s own spirit that welcomes the uncanny and the surreal during the most untimely hours, lurking around both those asleep and awake. As one character mentions, “Time moves in its own special way in the middle of the night. You can’t fight it.” In Murakami’s nocturnal Tokyo, the night also dreams.

Review – Keigo Higashino’s Naoko

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Keigo Higashino (author), Kerim Yasar (translator), Naoko, Vertical, 2004. 288 pgs.

Perhaps it is his engineering background that makes Keigo Higashino a great writer, with his masterful ability to engineer intricate plots that frame mind-bending mysteries. His craft in plot-making is why he has countless works that have been adapted for TV dramas and movies in both Japan and Korea. It seems his stories are just too good to not be made into screenplays that are just as equally good. His standalone novel Naoko, his first work to be translated to English, has both film and television adaptations in Japan, not to mention also being a winner of the Japan Mystery Writers Award at the time of its original publication.

Although Naoko isn’t as intricate as, say, Journey Under the Midnight Sun is in terms of plot, Higashino downplays the mystery aspect of the story in lieu of melodrama and poignancy, indeed proving his versatility as an author. While his novels aren’t known for literary depth and being more famous for his detective mysteries, Higashino goes on an excursion by working with a supernatural concept as his premise while keeping one foot within his mystery niche.

A middle-aged man Heisuke Sugita has his ordinary and quiet life rocked when he sees a television news report about a fatal accident involving a Nagano-bound bus his wife Naoko and daughter Monami had boarded. Everyone on board was killed except for Monami, who is in a coma. When she wakes up, she seems to have taken on her mother’s spirit—Monami mysteriously has Naoko’s memory and mind. Essentially, Naoko has taken over Monami’s body. Heisuke and Naoko become confused, living double lives as husband-and-wife in private, and as father-and-daughter in public. Meanwhile, Heisuke one day runs into Seiko Kajikawa, the bus driver’s wife, leading him to pursue the truth behind their family. It’s not a Higashino novel without a mystery to unfurl.

In essence, the novel focuses on Naoko’s “second go” at life, as she starts anew in a prepubescent body but carrying on her grownup wisdom. As a mother, she tries to live as fully as Monami would have wanted by pursuing a career as a doctor. There are quite a number of laughs as she and Heisuke come to grips with the new dynamic of their relationship as a couple. Eventually, they begin to struggle, first with the lack of physical intimacy. Naoko reaches Monami’s adolescent years while attending a co-ed high school, further straining her relationship with Heisuke as she starts a habit of coming home late and even flirts with a boy. Heisuke is left in a painful conflict having to choose between being a loving father or a loving husband to one person. It’s quite surprising for a mystery novel to evolve into such a touching story with tender moments and that’s exactly what has been achieved here.

Even though the melodrama lasts all the way to the late stages, the story goes full-circle at the end. Without giving away too much, an unassuming clue to the whole puzzle is the novel’s original title in Japanese, Himitsu (秘密), meaning “secret.” While the novel revolves around the character Naoko, at its very core is secrecy. Although the whole business of Naoko’s soul living in Monami’s body is an openly established secret between her and Heisuke, there’s a far less obvious one that brings a shock conclusion to the story. Higashino baits the reader with incredible misdirection in a similar fashion to the way he did in The Devotion of Suspect X.

Keigo Higashino is a true master of the Japanese mystery novel. In Naoko, he proves that he can do away with the usual affair of crime, genius professors, and detectives that most of his readers grew fond of. He exhibits versatility and stays true to his roots by delivering a tear-jerker and a mind-bender in one package.

Two new Higashino novels, Newcomer and The Name of the Game is Kidnapping are scheduled for release this year. The former is part of the Detective Kaga series (Malice) while the latter is a standalone. He’s a prolific writer in Japan yet only has six novels translated to English at the time of writing, so I’m anticipating the pair. While I wait, I might go check out those film and TV adaptations of his works.

Review – Hiromi Kawakami’s The Nakano Thrift Shop

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My review of Hiromi Kawakami’s latest English-translated work has been published in the Ninth Anniversary Issue of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal. Read more here.


The Nakano Thrift Shop was a light read and as I implied in the full review, it’s a novel with a continuous plot told in a short-story-collection-like structure, which is very similar to Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo / The Briefcase. This is a novel brought alive by eccentric characters, often in peculiar circumstances. While the plot may seem aimless, it nonetheless meanders smoothly with great execution by Kawakami and translator Allison Markin Powell.

Keeping to the Script: Schoolgirl by Osamu Dazai

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Osamu Dazai (author), Allison Markin Powell (translator), Schoolgirl, One Peace Books, 2012. 103 pgs.

Osamu Dazai’s 1939 novella is a young girl’s narration of a day in her life as she reflects on finding her place in the world. Schoolgirl is essentially a self-portrait of a student engulfed with adolescent angst and despite the roughly seventy-year gap between its original publication and its first English translation by Allison Markin Powell, is timelessly relatable and familiar to anyone who has ever wondered, at a tender age, about the individual within society.

As the unnamed girl takes the reader through her inner monologue of random musings and daydreaming across an ordinary day, she takes on a generally sad disposition and is voluntarily forthcoming of her unpleasant traits. “I really am a horrid girl,” she says, referring to how she hates lots of things, including her “pathetic” crippled pet dog. Over dinner, she looks cynically at her mother’s house guests the Imaidas, calling Mrs. Imaida “unrefined” for her excessive laughter. The girl’s loneliness mainly comes from missing her deceased father, yearning for her older sister who had already married and lives in Hokkaido, and having a mother who spends most of her time away from home or is busy entertaining friends and acquaintances. But beneath our schoolgirl’s cynicism and self-loathing is an acknowledgement of her weaknesses and shortcomings. With her father gone, the girl feels burdened at having to be her mother’s pillar, just as much as her father was, but is regretful for still being an immature daughter: “I only ever think of myself, I thought, I let myself be coddled by her to my heart’s content, and then take such a reckless attitude with her.”

Aside from her familial relations, the girl ponders about what it means to be a member of society. Unlike the typical soul-searching adolescent, she seems to already have a fair grasp of her identity. In fact, she’s reluctant at having to let herself go. Many times she challenges the need for conformity and the limits of living an authentic life. She desires to embrace her individuality but she is also aware of the pressures of needing to belong and having to comply with society’s standards. That is where the brunt of her frustration lies. “The truth is that I secretly love what seems to be my own individuality, and I hope I always will, but fully embodying it is another matter.”

Whereas some teenagers who struggle with the same questions of personal identity turn to rebellion that manifests physically, the girl keeps it all to herself, bottled up but somehow exerting no real pressure. We never really get a sense of pent up, on-the-edge adolescent frustration that boils tantalizingly close to the surface. Our schoolgirl’s inner turmoil is somewhat controlled. No matter how subversive her thoughts become, she never lashes out, keeping herself in check. While serving dinner to her mother’s house guests:

“Despite my feelings, I forced myself to bow and smile and chat, saying how cute Yoshio was and giving him a pat on the head. Since I was the one lying outright and tricking them all, maybe the Imaidas were more pure and innocent than I was.”

She has enough maturity to act appropriately but she is equally aware of the superficiality of her actions. It bothers her that she has to put on the “happy face” that people around her expect to see because deep inside, she wants to act her own way. But her rebellion is all in her mind and never breaks surface mainly because our schoolgirl harbors sorrow more than anger. Several times over the course of the day, she wanted to cry but even her tears never fall. Arguably, the girl feels entrapped, claustrophobic not only within the society that she is part of but also within the person that she is or rather, the mask that she wears.

Her feelings are contradictory, in that as much as she dislikes acting superficially to meet accepted norms, she finds comfort in conformity. She regularly uses the word “obsequious” to describe herself and the people around her, revealing how she honestly sees society. As Shakespeare once wrote in As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage.” So our schoolgirl sticks to her script, acting accordingly to how she is expected to act around people, be it in school, while riding public transportation, or at home while entertaining guests.

The girl possesses a precocious, piercing, aggressive vision of the world around her—on society and nature. She gawks at passengers on the train going to school but on her way home, she takes a slow walk down the country road and lies down on a meadow, remembering her late father. Allowing the afternoon haze to embrace her while gazing at the blue sky, she becomes awestruck at the beauty of this scene and encounters a spiritual experience. “I want to live beautifully,” she says.

Later in the night before going to bed, she gives her mother a massage as they share a tender moment. She receives praise from her mother. “I was thrilled by the possibility of a new, calm me, one who had emerged after I had simply accepted my place,” says our schoolgirl. In the midst of her confusion and loneliness, she encounters hope.

Book Review – Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

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Book review originally published on August 29, 2016 in my Goodreads account. Also posted on September 1, 2016 in my first blog.

Is it logical for one to fall in love with a book that also broke one’s heart? Banana Yoshimoto’s masterpiece of Japanese fiction was a short, sentimental, and satisfying read for me. As someone who aspires to write short fiction but hampered by a lack of creativity or inspiration, I realized that with Kitchen, I ended up reading what I wanted to write. Not that I want to write something sad but I really admire Yoshimoto’s writing and delivery of a slice of life story driven more by characters rather than plot. I could see myself revisiting this exquisite work again and again.

Kitchen consists of two novellas (the eponymous story and a shorter one, Moonlight Shadow) that explore love and loss. Both novellas involve young characters in the midst of vulnerable times as they attempt to cope with deaths of people they become attached to, mending wounds created by the loss of loved ones. Kitchen has believable, relatable characters, each of them pitiful, tinged with depression of varying degrees but despite their vulnerability, there is still latent strength within them, evoking senses of hope and optimism. Its only weakness is that the tone sometimes turns a tad preachy, generating lines akin to Paulo Coelho quotes. But these flat points are few and far in between in an otherwise strong work. At times sharply sad, the book never becomes overly depressing, and room is left for a gentle mix of light humor along with the sentimentality. Add in a little magic realism, which offered a reassuring familiarity for Haruki Murakami fans like me, and this book has delightfully turned out to be my cup of tea.

The English translation by Megan Backus brought out Yoshimoto’s skilled writing and I’m confident that the original text in Japanese was superb. I took my time with this relatively thin volume of only 150 pages, savoring every word and sentence as if reading poetry; and Yoshimoto’s prose is quite poetic. She is very masterful in painting the scenes that surround her characters and I’m most impressed by how she makes gloomy winter scenery appear vivid and striking. Yoshimoto constantly uses the sky and the weather as image motifs across the two stories. The various details such as the bite of a cold wind, the blueness of the night sky, the falling snow, among others, are of close relation, almost reflections, of the characters that they surround. Her descriptions of scenery are easily my favorite parts of the book.

I discovered that Kitchen is the favorite book of one of my former college professors, as well as a fictional character’s in a Japanese television drama, so I’m glad I finally picked up a copy after I was left convinced. I’m also glad that it’s a widely acclaimed international bestseller, so there is legitimate hype surrounding the book. Considered a representative work of contemporary Japanese literature, I think it deserves its lofty reputation. Based on my literary tastes, Kitchen was a quintessential little book in numerous aspects of fiction, especially Yoshimoto’s prose and handling of characters. This was some fine contemporary slice of life fiction sprinkled with magic realism that made it dazzlingly alluring.