Tuesday, January 8, 2013
Book Review: Flesh by Khanh Ha
Publication: 2012, Black Heron Press
Genre: Literary Fiction
FTC Info: I received a copy of this book from the author as part of a promotion through Virtual Author Book Tours.
Rating: 5/5 stars
Please visit tomorrow for my interview with Khanh Ha.
At the turn of the 20th century -- in modern day Vietnam -- Tài, a boy of about fifteen, stands with his mother and little brother. They are watching a mass execution. The last victim is Tài's father. This leads the boy on a journey to recover his father's head, without which his daddy will be unable to find peace in the afterlife. Later Tài will be become an indentured servant to two men to procure a proper burial place for his father and another loved one.
Throughout Flesh we see Tài growing up, in a frightening and dangerous world, falling in love, and struggling to take charge of his own fate. His journey takes us from remote forests and villages to city streets and opium dens.
We meet various other characters who populate Tài's world. A man who makes his living as an executioner and must behead his own nephew in the line of duty. A compassionate French Catholic priest who spends as much time listening as preaching, gaining proficiency in the nuances of a complex new language and insight into a different culture. In the process he learns about a rich spiritual tradition, blending Buddhist influence with a long history of praying to ancestors and belief in spirits, genies, and thunder gods. A father and daughter who eke out a living transporting people by boat and selling moonshine. A beautiful young woman who, at age 11, was sold to a merchant to pay her mother's debts. An aging man whose tongue was removed, to protect a wealthy man's secret, and his faithful dog.
These beautiful, tragic stories are woven into a lyrically beautiful, vibrantly descriptive book. Much of the novel moves at a slow pace, as the author recreates this world. It is a world that appears historically accurate yet is completely foreign to me. Yet throughout the book I could see the landscape, taste the food and rice wine, and smell the dank, fertile river or the fetid stench of a plague-ridden village. Khanh Ha is also a master of using descriptive detail to create a mood. This mood often radiates darkness and death, but it sometimes reflects joy. It's sometimes a bit surreal yet, at the same time, vividly real.
This novel became one of my favorites largely because of the unique story, fascinating setting, and characters that hooked me and got under my skin. I also savored the lyrical language and vivid, poetic use of imagery. And I became absorbed in Tài's life and his difficult, dangerous coming of age. I watched him struggle between his yearning for love and freedom and his duty to his family. I saw him coming to grips with his identity in relation to his father, a bandit who met a violent end. He sees much of his father in himself. Is violence in his blood or is he free to create his own sense of self? When he finally faces the man who betrayed his father, will he choose forgiveness or revenge? Having walked this path with Tài, I find this character impossible to forget.
I highly recommend this to lovers of literary fiction, particularly if you are intrigued by the history of Vietnam. Flesh may not be for everyone; if you don't enjoy slow, highly descriptive novels, you may find the style of this book frustrating. Some readers many also find the violence disturbing.
However, the raw, honest quality of this book -- which doesn't shield readers' eyes from tragedy and brutality -- is one of the things that appealed to me. And overall, I didn't find the tone of the book grim or hopeless. The bleakness of the characters' intertwined stories is balanced by glimmers of beauty, an exploration of love and loyalty, a sense of the possibility of forgiveness and redemption, and an awareness of the importance of the choices we make.