One of the giddy pleasures of joining a reading challenge of the kind we’ve been engaging in—to read around the world—is that you can zig-zag around the world in ways that regular travel would not allow. Your trajectory lands you bang in the middle of cultures, at the center of worlds at once unfamiliar and intimate, disturbing and exhilarating, your journey wrought by the words of storytellers who know their subjects better than any tourist guide.
So the past few months I’ve travelled across three continents—no four—with authors who’ve drawn me an insider’s map to their worlds.
I began, on New Year’s eve, in South Korea with Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, a surreal portrait of a woman’s rapid withdrawal into herself, the only way in which she is able to deal with the violence of human existence. The winner of the 2016 Man Booker Prize, Kang has been described by The Guardian as “one of South Korea’s best kept secrets”. Yeong-hye, the protagonist of the novel, is an ordinary woman from an ordinary middle-class family living an ordinary life…until she decides to stop eating meat. Her family cannot understand this decision, initially seeing it as a quirk, then as stubbornness, and finally as illness. The story is told in three parts, from three different perspectives: that of her husband, her brother in law for whom she is first a muse and then an object of desire, and her sister, who also ends up as her carer. We see Yeong-he only as reflected through their eyes, and occasionally, through her dreams that find their way into these alienating narratives. This is a book that intrigues rather than enchants. It draws out in deadpan fashion the hypocrisy that underlies our everyday lives while also in some strange way showing us that resistance is possible, though it might end up consuming us.
A happy contrast to the darkness of Kang’s novel was the small blue book from Finland, The Summer Book by Tove Jansson. The windswept island that is home to Sophia and her whimsical grandmother is small enough to walk around in an hour or less but large enough to offer magic and discovery to an earnest little girl. Here, wisdom resides in the tiny acts–of walking along the beach, of looking out to sea, of taking a nap in the woods, of finding a bottle in the sand. “Only small things happen in the islands, but these too…have to be dealt with.” And while Sophia and her grandmother deal with these many small things, they have hundreds of delightfully sparse conversations that make us fall in love with the way they are.
And then I veered back Eastward to Turkey, with Elif Shafak’s The Three Daughters of Eve–a story that unfolds during a bourgeois dinner party in a swanky riverside bungalow in Istanbul. Pericim, who has just emerged from a close encounter with a petty thief, spends the evening resenting the party and instead traveling across the decades to when she was a student at Oxford, under the spell of a brilliant philosophy professor whose seminar on God held her–and several other young women–in thrall. We spend the evening with Peri and the other guests, now privy to their desultory high-society chatter, and now, running with her along the Oxford streets clutching piles of books and figuring out her place in an increasingly polarised world. I found the novel somewhat unsatisfying, with loose ends that left one turning back pages to check if there were answers earlier on. I had picked up the book mainly to read someone from the country other than Pamuk–I guess I’ll have to keep looking!
I made one other stop, in Bulgaria, with Alek Popov’s The Black Box, funny in parts, disturbing in others, where two brothers, widely (and wildly) different, are spun in different directions after a series of unfortunate events. Ned, who is a successful financial whiz on Wall Street, messes up at work and is despatched to find a missing director from the company, who seems to be involved in a quasi-legal situation in Bulgaria. In the meantime, Angel, unemployed, wins the green card lottery in the United States and travels there from Bulgaria, conveniently making Ned’s (now empty) apartment his home. What follows is like an absurd drama, with each brother becoming central to a different set of crazy circumstances, from a conspiracy among dog walkers to corporate espionage in Bulgaria.
But the joy of reading resides not in whether one “liked” a book or not, but in the journey the author takes you on, through context and culture, mood and meaning. And there, all four books scored. Bigly.