The Journey Within

Appearing in Sunlight Press magazine, October 2019


The White Book

By Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith

Random, $12, 160 pages, ISBN 9780525573067


If you want a novel with a clear, three-act narrative and an all’s-well conclusion, then this book by Korean writer Han Kang is not for you. In fact, it does not even look like a novel, written in short and seemingly unconnected snatches of prose. It is more like an extended meditation on life and death, on what might have been and on what once was. And that is enough. More than enough.

White book coverIt is unknown how much of The White Book is autobiographical but it feels as if a good part of it is drawn from lived experience. Han has no lack of courage as a writer, in that she was willing to make such a departure from her previous book, The Vegetarian, which won the Booker International prize in 2016. That novel – actually three connected novellas – followed the increasing detachment of a woman from the real world when she announces she will no longer eat meat, and then eventually stops eating altogether. Significantly, we never really find out why: the three novellas are (effectively) centred on her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister.

But we know that she is on a journey that leads to the most innermost part of the soul – something we find again in The White Book, and an idea that underlies much of the dynamism of the current Korean literary scene. The narrator of the book is in search of herself through an examination of the past, reflecting the way that South Korea is itself looking for a way forward (a theme, interestingly, often taken up by Han’s novelist father, Han Seung-won). It is a culture looking for the elusive balance between past and future, retaining what is most valuable without a trace of bleary-eyed nostalgia. The path has not yet been found but there is a sense that it will be, eventually.

Make no mistake: making one’s own fate is not an easy process, just as The White Book is not an easy read, despite its apparent brevity. It requires a certain level of engagement, and the reader has to be willing to follow the twists and turns of the narrative. The story that weaves in and out of the book centres on the premature birth and death, after only two hours, of a baby that would have been Han’s older sister (eonni is the Korean term). Han imagines the heartrending scene of the mother holding the newborn close and begging: “Don’t die. Please don’t die.”

But the universe decided otherwise, and the tiny corpse is taken into the forest for burial. The white swaddling cloth became a funeral shroud. It is this image that leads Han to examine the white things that punctuate her life: rice, pills, salt, waves, a bird on the wing, an empty page where text should be. And snow, a connection that leads Han to reflect on “the city” where she lives for a while, a place where snow disguises and then reveals the past. It is Warsaw (although never identified by name), a city which, like Seoul, has been repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt, a cycle in which Han sees an image of her departed, un-named eonni and herself.

For she eventually comes to realise that if the baby had lived then she, Han, would probably not have been born. It is a duality, a balance, that provides Han with a comfort, with a sense that things worked out as they were supposed to, as they were fated to. In the book’s final passage, Han bids her ethereal sibling farewell: “Within that white, all of those white things, I will breathe in the final breath that you released.”

There is a toughness in Han, a sense of resilience and a willingness to peel back layers to find the core of being. This book could easily have become a mawkish plea for sympathy but the restrained, poetic writing provides a sense of moving from mourning to acceptance, a completed circle. It is a limited emotional pallet but the right one. It is no surprise to learn that the book took a long time to write and almost as long a time to translate.

The White Book is not for everyone but those who accept it on its own terms will find that it offers beauty, poignancy and resonance, a knowledge of what is lost and what is gained, and how one becomes the other.

Han Kang

Eat Me

The Vegetarian
By Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)
Hogarth (US 2016 edition), 208 pages, $10

This novel has won a vast amount of praise and is the first Korean novel to be awarded the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. Published in Korean in 2007, it is partially based on Kang’s 1997 short story ‘The Fruit of My Woman’, where a woman turns into a plant (it was published in English in 2015 in a collection of Kang’s stories).

The Vegetarian is a disturbing book, although structurally it is not actually a novel but three connected novellas. In the first, an unremarkable woman called Yeong-hye suddenly announces to her husband that she is becoming vegetarian, and has thrown away all the meat in the freezer. She is not clear on the reason, aside from saying that she had a dream.

The VegetarianIt should be said that Korean culture places great stock in dream messages. But it should also be said that vegetarianism is unusual in Korea (aside from the substantial number of Buddhists in the country). Koreans are actually quite proud of their meat-heavy cuisine, as it indicates that the company has become prosperous after decades of post-war struggle. So in choosing this course with little explanation to her husband means that Yeong-hye is breaking a number of entrenched social rules.

The rest of the first novella involves the husband and others of her family trying to make sense of what is going on, even as she seems to move further into a world of her own. When her father tries to force a piece of pork down her throat she stabs herself, but after that she seems strangely indifferent.

It is this sense of remove, as well as her transforming body, that attracts her brother-in-law, an artist struggling through a dry spell, to her in the second novella. His attempt to use her as a model to reinvigorate his work ends badly for everyone; the circle of social collapse kicked off by Yeong-hye decision is spreading.

The third novel revolves around her sister, In-hye, who watches Yeong-hye’s physical and mental condition deteriorate after she gives up eating altogether. We find out more about Yeong-hye’s dense, violent dreams, although we never really learn the underlying causes for her slow-motion suicide. Increasingly invasive methods of force-feeding do not achieve much; she has effectively left the world of the living already. For In-hye there are recurring images of the trees in the hospital grounds, matching those of Yeong-hye’s labyrinthine subconscious. Connections that lead nowhere, threads that make nothing, answers that provide only more questions. There is a Kafkaesque quality to the pointlessness, but also a certain inevitability. Yeong-hye has, in her own way, broken loose from the strictures of Korean society, and indeed of humanity. She becomes free only to die in a method of her choosing: is this victory or the worst possible defeat? Kang does not offer an answer.

No solutions, but instead there is some beautiful writing, and many striking images. Each section has its own rhythm and tone, so perfectly constructed that one almost forgets the bizarre, tragic narrative. It is a piece of work that stays with you, in a way that is haunting, querulous, and unique.

Image result for han kang

Off the meds

The Good Son

By You-Jeong Jeong; translated by Chi-Young Kim

Hachette, $33, 309 pages, ISBN  9781408709740

The Good Son auYou-Jeong’s thrillers are extremely popular in South Korea and have been translated widely; strangely, this novel, her fourth, is the first one to be translated into English. But Australian readers might note that the cover tag-line – ‘how well does a mother know her son?’ – is rather misleading. It turns out that the mother of Yu-jin, a 25-year-old student who lives at home – knows him better than he knows himself.

In fact, the story starts with Yu-jin (who takes the idea of an unreliable narrator to new heights) waking to find himself covered in blood, and then finding his mother’s body. He cannot remember what happened; he assumes that he had one of his epileptic seizures during the period the murder occurred. He is off his meds, a crucial issue. He tries to ‘investigate’ but it is clear that he is the one responsible; his mother’s ghost even tells him so.

One lie leads to another, and the cover-ups spread. As he reads his mother’s journal he realises that the heavyweight drugs he has been taking for years were not to stop epilepsy but to suppress his psychopathy. As pieces of memory return – although it is not always clear what is real and what is imagined – he comes to understand that the various tragedies endured by the family were his doing, not accidents. And, he realises, he is alright with that.

As the violence spirals out of control the past comes into focus, and Yu-jin – even though he sees himself as the victim in all this – emerges as a deeply horrifying individual. And there is no justice here, no redemption, no forgiveness. He simply continues on his murderous way.

It is a labyrinthine story, although perhaps there is too much narrative dependence on You-Jeong Jeongthe mother’s journal. Neither is there any real explanation for Yu-jin’s psychosis: he was just born that way, apparently.  This makes sense within Korean culture but Western readers might want a bit more.

Nevertheless, The Good Son is a compelling read, with a chilling atmosphere and some unexpected twists. It’s not the best novel of the year, but it’s pretty good.

Stories told differently

Appearing in Weekend Australian – Review, January 28-29, 2017


The Daily Assortment of Astonishing Things and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2016

Various authors

New Internationalist/Jacana, $28, 292 pages, ISBN 978178263205


Too often, Africa seems to drift on the far horizon of the world, occasionally sending messages of terrorism, post-colonial hangovers, and unfulfilled potential. Not so, according to this collection of stories, the finalists of the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing in 2016. It shows that there are outstanding writers doing remarkable things with the short story form, with a focus more on the personal than the political. The title of the collection alone is enough to catch the eye.daily-assortment-of-astonishing-things

The Caine Prize has had a critical role in the development of African literature since it was established in 2000. The prize is named for Michael Caine, who was Chairman of the Booker Prize management committee for nearly 25 years and appreciated the kick-start value of competitions and awards. The prize itself is for UK£10,000 and a scholarship to study in the US, and several previous winners have gone on to publish well-received novels. Even more, it provides the opportunity for writers to discuss their projects and polish their work. This collection includes the five finalists plus twelve other commended stories that were workshopped at a conference organised by the Caine Prize committee.

Several of these stories deal with the downside of getting what you wish for. The narrator in Billy Kahora’s ‘Shiko’, one of the rising Nairobi bourgeoisie, is tormented by the possibility of losing a critical business deal as well as the attractive woman who might come with it. Oh well, at least he will still have “the Audi out in the parking lot … it is beautiful … the only constant.”

The cleverly titled ‘What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky’ by Lesley Nneka Arimah takes a sci-fi approach, drawing a future world where a huge algorithm holds out the possibility of ever-expanding human potential. The Mathematician at the centre of the story is one of a few who can even use it to take away the pain of others. But the perfection of the formula might turn out to be not so perfect after all, eventually imposing costs that are as awful as they are unavoidable. Abdul Adan’s equally fantastical ‘The Lifebloom Gift’ speculates that the moles on a person’s body might, if touched the right way, be the path to enlightenment and true happiness. Or maybe they are just moles.

Ah, the unknown unknowns, the unforeseeability of consequences. This theme also features in the story ‘At Your Requiem’ by Bongani Kona, where the patterns of lives are unfolded in reverse, a labyrinth of intersections and departures. Likewise, in Kafula Mwila’s ‘77 Steps’ a transgression from long ago is uncovered and confronted. But there is a sense that not much has been achieved, and maybe some parts of the past are better left buried.

If this sounds a bit grim, it must be said that there are flashes of humour in this collection as well. The story ‘The Daily Assortment of Astonishing Things’, by Okwiri Oduor, revolves around a boy, Dudu, who is so naughty and self-centred – “full of mud” is the wonderful expression – that his exasperated mother runs away from home. At first, Dudu thinks this is great news, but then he realises that she took the transistor radio with her. And without the radio, he cannot listen to his favourite program, The Daily Assortment of Astonishing Things. Dudu’s attempts to get his mother back – with radio – are comic, although there is a dark undercurrent of manipulation in his efforts. One feels that Dudu has a promising future in politics.

winner-and-caine-bustThe winner of the prize is a mesmerising story, ‘Memories We Lost’ by South African writer Lidudmalingani. The narrator is a young girl who gradually becomes the protector of her sister, who suffers from schizophrenia. It represents the complexity of village culture in the twenty-first century, with attempts to cure the girl ranging from church sermons to numbing medication to exorcising rituals, including one known as “baking”.


I had heard of how Nkunzi baked people. He would make a fire from cow dung and wood, and once the fire burned red he would tie the demon-possessed person onto a section of zinc roofing and place it on the fire. I had not heard of anyone who had died but I had not heard of anyone who had lived either. I could not allow this to happen to my sister.


To escape the ritual, the two girls run away. They have no idea where they are going but they are slowly absorbed into the vast landscape, unhealed but together. It is a powerful but intimate story, told with an authoritative and authentic voice. “Secrets stay buried for so long, but one day they rise to open like seeds breaking free from the earth,” says Lidudmalingani. We can only hope to hear more of him.

Given the variety of voices, from Somalia to Zambia, from Nigeria to Zimbabwe, is it possible to identify a unifying African tone? Perhaps there is an underlying sense of fatalism here, a willingness to accept rather than change things. Some Western readers, more familiar with stories built around a three-act structure and a redemptive conclusion, might find this difficult. But really it demonstrates that there are many ways to tell stories, many ways to find meaning in the world. The contributors to this book, and the organisers of the Caine Prize, deserve our thanks for that.


Bio Graphy

Stories of Your Life and Others

By Ted Chiang



Amongst aficionados of the thinking-person branch of science-fiction Seattle-based Chiang has long been highly regarded, and he has a string of awards on his shelf. But he has never really broken through to the mainstream: perhaps because he only writes stories rather than novels, perhaps because the stories are complex and contemplative, or perhaps because he has little time for the celebrity-writer game.

This has changed – somewhat – with the release of the mesmerising movie Arrival, based on Chiang’s 1998 story, Story of Your Life, which is the centrepiece of this collection. There is a fair bit of difference between the short story and the movie (the screenplay was written by Eric Heisserer) but the basic idea and the spiralling, inside-out structure remains. The movie is a good adaptation, and director Denis Villeneuve obviously thought carefully about the tone. He also engaged Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson (with whom he had worked on Sicario) to provide an other-worldly soundscape.

This reviewer will not give away the story of Story, as it would be a spoiler for anyone who has not seen the movie, but he can say that is a remarkable piece of work, clever without being condescending. Story also indicates Chiang’s interest in the problem of communication – in this case between unrelated species – which features regularly in this collection. In Understand, a person who has acquired super-intelligence finds himself unable to interact with ‘normals’, as life becomes a blur of Mandelbrot-style complexity. In Liking What You See, a new technology allows people to ‘turn off’ the part of their brain that decides whether a face is attractive or not. It’s a mixed blessing.

ted-chiangChiang has a knack for creating a world which is recognisable but radically different. In Seventy-Two Letters, the main industry is the creation of golem-like ‘engines’ animated by increasingly complicated nomenclatures. Hell is the Absence of God features regularly-appearing angels who provide both miracles and disasters, although their purpose is obscure and the outcomes seemingly random. These stories bring to mind some of Steven Millhauser’s tales, the same willingness to follow an idea to wherever it leads.

One of the most interesting stories in this collection (the first story that Chiang published, in fact) has a more Borges-like quality. The Tower of Babylon comes at the biblical story from an angle both literal and bizarre. The huge tower does, eventually, grow tall enough to reach Heaven although God, as it turns out, is rather indifferent to the whole endeavour.

These stories are not easy: readers have to work out a lot for themselves. Well, good. People who want shoot-‘em-up sci-fi stories favouring action over thought will have no trouble finding them. But Chiang has shown that the genre can be more. Much more.

Luminous light

Appearing on website


The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

By Dominic Smith

Allen & Unwin, $33, 384 pages, ISBN 9781743439951


There is something mesmerising about the paintings of the Dutch Golden Age. In Vermeer’s depictions of domestic daily life, for example, there is always a sense of a story under the image, of movement behind the stillness. There is the same quality with this remarkable novel, which is structured as a series of layers and interlaced time periods. It is no accident that one of main characters, Ellie Shipley, is a painter and art restorer who builds up a work and then strips parts away, a reflection of the way this novel works.

There was not really a Golden Age painter called Sara de Vos – Smith (who is Australian but usually lives in the US) knitted the character together from what is known of several female artists of the time. Nevertheless, he gives her a detailed life, with alternating chapters of the book telling her story. It has its share of tragedy: a child lost, a husband who abandons her to escape his debts, a tetchy relationship with the guild that controls the painting business.

Ellie’s connection with de Vos is, at first, her stalled dissertation, as she struggles to maintain a threadbare life in 1950s New York, partly an escape from her stultifying family in Sydney. Then Sara enters her life in another way, in the shape of an offer to make a forgery of the only known de Vos painting, At the Edge of the Wood, a mysterious and charismatic piece of work.

Woven into this story – and that of Sara in seventeenth-century Holland – is that of Marty de Groot, an over-affluent lawyer whose family have owned the original painting for generations. When he realises that the painting hanging over his bed is a fake he tracks down Ellie, not to get his property back but for his own half-hidden reasons.

Fast-forward to 2000, and Ellie is working at the NSW Art Gallery, where she is given the job of curating a show about women painters of the Dutch Golden Age. And, of course, she finds that the forgery – her dark but beautiful secret – is on its way, and so is the original. With Marty as well, who turns out to have aged into self-aware mellowness, like a varnish gaining its own patina.

Each of these streams has its own dynamic, and each provides pieces that fall into a whole. This tessellated approach to narrative can, if not handled well, become merely confusing and disjointed. But there is never a sense that Smith does not know where he is heading. Indeed, as each story progresses it develops a sense of inevitability. Everything ends in the place where it should be, where it belongs, with the clarity of Vermeer sunlight. And even the surprise at the ending is not, really, a surprise, but the final component of an elegant composition.

Smith brings a great authority to this, whether he is discussing the techniques of artistic forgery or the social details of the Mad Men creatures of Manhattan. But the real core is the cross-era relationship between Sara and Ellie, parallel but intimately connected. It is this which provides the heart of the novel. It is a heart which is warm, and alive, and luminous.


Literary bridges to Asia

Appearing in the Weekend Australian/Review –  August 20-21 2016


The Near and the Far: New Stories from the Asia-Pacific Region

Edited by David Carlin and Francesca Rendle-Short

Scribe, $28, 288 pages, ISBN 9781925321562Far and Near


Despite geographical proximity and economic ties there has been surprisingly little connection between Australia and our near northern neighbours when it comes to literature. This is a pity, because the countries of south-east Asia have both long literary traditions and plenty of fine writers working on contemporary themes. The Near and the Far is part of a project aimed at building two-way communication, and is the result of a series of workshops conducted by Melbourne’s RMIT University (both Carlin and Rendle-Short teach there, aside from being established writers themselves) under the rubric WrICE, for Writers Immersion and Cultural Exchange, in Australia and Asia. The result is a remarkable collection of 21 pieces, and if not all of them succeed it is largely because of the risk inherent in the undertaking.

For a number of the writers based in Australia, there is often a sense of having to go away in order to see home clearly. Melissa Lucashenko, an indigenous writer, provides a remarkable story, Dreamers, about the effect of a child’s disappearance on the three adults left behind, the parents and an Aboriginal woman. But the strangest aspect of the story is that it was written mainly in Penang, Malaysia.

Likewise, Joe Rubbo’s story Trampoline, set in the suburban Australia of Rubbo’s childhood, was written in Vietnam. It should be said that this story is not entirely successful, seeming to merely stop rather than conclude, as if it is still a work in progress. A few other pieces suffer from the same sense of rawness, but perhaps this is what the book is meant, in part, to illustrate: that writing is as much about process as product. Each piece in The Near and the Far contains a postscript where the writer explains their thoughts, and this provides an important depth and texture.

Not all the contributions are fiction; there are several essays and poetry pieces as well. In some cases it is hard to tell where a piece fits: Xu Xi’s essay BG: the Significant Years, traces her development as a multi-sited, mixed-origin citizen of everywhere – she is a Chinese-Indonesian native of Hong Kong and a US citizen – in terms of the advent of Google (Before-Google and Post-Google). Xu also notes that the WrICE workshops gave her a breakthrough on her stalled novel, The Milton Man – one to watch for, from what we see here.

David Carlin’s personal essay Unmade in Bangkok looks at the position of the ladyboy community in Thailand, which leads him into a broader discussion of constructed gender and sexuality. Yes, the ladyboys have a place, and it is safe enough, but they are obliged to stay in it. Is this enough? Carlin is unsure, but it makes him think that transgender people are at the front line of identity issues, and there are broader lessons that can be learned.

Sexual identity is also critical in Omar Musa’s story (which perhaps is only pretending to be fiction) You Think You Know, set in Malaysia, a country where the government is hell-bent on modernising and but equally intent on enforcing rigid social conservatism. Bernice Chauly approaches the same issue from a different angle, looking at the opening of the Petronas Towers complex in 1998 as an ambiguous symbol of official self-congratulation and the hollow façade of a troubled, divided society. This essay, Standing in the Eyes of World, is part of a longer piece, and its open-endedness is a bit frustrating, but there is no doubting Chauly’s creative talent and her commitment to her subject.

Suchen Christine Lim, a Singaporean writer, had to travel the world before she could understand the loving relationship between the two women who raised her. My Two Mothers, developed at the WrICE workshop in Vietnam, is a tender look back, a way of reconciling with people displaced in their own country but connected in their hearts.

For Cate Kennedy, the dislocation is between what she anticipates and what she finds. She had expected Vietnam to be a place of postcard scenes and quiet French streets: yes, they are there, but so are floods of motorbikes (her problem with crossing the road is both comical and illuminating) and go-go capitalism. Appropriately, her piece Incoming Tides comes down to the image on an old man fishing peacefully – except that he is wearing a hi-visibility vest so he can be seen in the hubbub. No, not what she expected: something less, perhaps, but something more as well.

The sense of arriving somewhere you think you know and finding a different place is especially problematic for bi-racial returnees, who carry with them their parent’s old memories. Laurel Fantauzzo, in the wonderfully-named essay Some Hints About Travelling to the Country Your Family Departed, examines the indeterminate status that comes with mixed-race heritage. Her visit to the Phillipines, her mother’s country, for a WrICE event helps her to understand a few things, but also shows her that it takes a long time to see a country’s soul. But her sound advice – “have two karaoke songs ready” – suggests that she has made a pretty good start.

Anyone looking for coherence of style, content and purpose will not find it in The Near and the Far. But the book’s point is to showcase diversity and difference. In this, it delivers, and handsomely. As a bridge between literary spheres, we can only hope it is the first and not the last.