The opening of Manju Kapur’s new novel Brothers is also its dénoument. With the outcome already known, author Kapur has to work doubly hard to keep the reader engaged in the working out of the plot—something she fortunately achieves with aplomb.
Exoticism and marketable anguish were an unavoidable trope during Hollywood superstar Angelina Jolie’s premier event last week at Angkor in Cambodia. Amidst the harrowing tales of Khmer Rouge-era suffering, cameras and lights were focused on the actress as she munched on fried “a-ping” zebra tarantulas in one corner of the Angkor temple complex. Such are the sorts of clichés that Samuel Ferrer must—and prudently does—eschew in his enjoyable historical novel The Last Gods of Indochine set in the shadows of Angkor.
In one fell swoop, Charles Wang—patriarch of the Wang family, purveyor of the American immigrant dream, cosmetic visionary and turner of “shit into Shinola”—goes from king to, well, cock:
In Chinese, in any Chinese speaker’s mouth, Wang was a family name to be proud of. It meant king, with a written character that was simple and strong. And it was pronounced with a languid drawn-out diphthong of an o sound that suggested an easy life of summer palaces and fishing for sweet river shrimp off gilded barges. But one move to America and Charles Wang’s proud surname became a nasally joke of a word; one move and he went from king to cock.
Marlene Dietrich famously sang of still having a suitcase in Berlin, a wistful testament to the evocative power of memory and the hold that people and places can have on us. In many ways the unnamed Korean female narrator in Bae Suah’s novella A Greater Music has left her own suitcase in the German capital, one packed with scraps of memories from a broken intimate relationship with an older German woman and the morning-after emotions that surface when reflecting on a life lived elsewhere.
If Mannequin is any evidence, Ch’oe Yun is a writer’s writer. This 2003 novel, only now released in English translation, is a dreamlike reflection on beauty and human existence.
Both challenging and subtle in construction, the novel deals in impressions rather than plot. The story, to which atmosphere clings like mist on a hillside, centers around Jini, a young (teenage) advertising model and the mannequin of the title. A commercial success, she has been been used to promote products since she was a baby, lifting her family out of poverty in the process. Cherished yet controlled, she finally throws it all over and runs away.
Set in New York, Ha Jin’s new novel, The Boat Rocker, takes place “a week before the fourth anniversary of 9/11”. Much of the novel’s power derives from the uncanny parallels between the issues faced by its central figure, a truth-seeking online journalist in the era of Hu Jintao and George W Bush, and all of us, in our Trumpian moment, as we struggle with its penchant for “alternative facts”.
Despite being set in Zamana, a fictional city in contemporary Pakistan, this novel is no fantasy. Its depiction of religious intolerance is quite the opposite—all too depressingly real. Yet author Nadeem Aslam shines hope into nightmare with the notion that love (and books) could, one day, conquer all.