1. Malice, by Kiego Higashino
I believe I've discussed this novel on my blog before, but it begins my 2022 reading list. A close friend of mine and I began a book club around November – a way to connect despite the overseas distance. This was our mystery of choice.
Malice is a compelling novel – a compact, brilliantly composed tale of cat and mouse where the detective and the writer work quietly to deter one another's resolve. Here, Higashino explores the limit and influence of one's childhood. How it leads into the future.
As always, Higashino develops a complex narrative, with success.
2. Heaven, Mieko Kawakami
Heaven is a 2009 novel, whose English translation was released in 2021 and published by Europa Editions. This novel is my introduction to Mieko Kawakami. Her words (and the narrative), though thoughtfully laid and translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd, brims with the promise of friendship, deliverance and hope. The buildunsroman reveals characters that are rich with maturity and growth. The youthfulness of the unnamed boy and his penpal, Kojima, is best seen in light of change – of seasons.
When I looked at her, the nervousness I had been feeling burned off in the glow, and I felt an upwelling of relief.
Heaven follows Mieko's14-year-old narrator, who is bullied by sadistic classmates. The narrator's dim brightens when he begins exchanging letters with a girl in his class named Kojima. Kojima is also bullied. One day, the two students venture to an art museum to visit a painting that Kojima renamed Heaven. It is evocative, beautiful and sharp – the emodiment of a paradise that lingers through their summer outing, which pulses with life and feeling. But foreboding looms over the friendship when Mieko's unnamed narrator realises that Kojima's philosophical way of coping with pain is greatly flawed.
3. Call Me By Your Name, André Aciman
Published in 2019, André's Aciman's Call Me By Your Name is a beautifully-constructed body – thoughts and feelings that move with one fluid motion, like waves on the beach. It is intentional, poetic and stylistically precise. André Aciman considers, elegantly and, as the Telegraph writes, 'with no small amount of unbridled skin-to-skin contact,' the moment when one becomes aware of their own desire (dream or lust) to know someone – wholly, unabashedly.
Many readers will recognise the eponymic title, having seen the film starring Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer, directed by Italian producer and screenwriter Luca Guadagnino. Like classics, Call Me By Your Name is a book that explores adolescent sexual awakening. Set on the luxurious, quintessentially picturesque Italian Riviera in the mid 1980s, the novel remains tightly bound to the mind of Elio. Elio is an mature boy, son of an open-minded, sage-like scholar and his wife. His wit and intelligence are both the charm and nature of his world, which unfolds and wraps itself around the 24-year-old postdoc who has come to study and revise his manuscript in the quiet summer.
4. On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong
On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous was a bestseller of 2019 and follows Ocean Vuong's collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds, which won both a Forward Prize and the TS Eliot prize. As a poet, I was curious to learn how Vuong moved between genres.
Ocean Vuong's grandfather was a US soldier posted to Vietnam. His grandmother, a girl who worked in the rice fields. The couple met and married amidst the violent backdrop of war. but the fall of Saigon forced them apart when his grandfather, who was visiting the United States at the time, never returned to Vietnam for his wife. Afraid that her daughters might be taken for adoption in the US, grandmother Lan placed all three into different orphanages. It is a miracle they were reunited in adulthood.
In Vietnam, Vuong's mother worked in a Saigon salon. Despite her light-skin and Caucausian features, Rose was discovered to be mixed-race and the new communist regime banned her from working. The whole family evacuated to the Philippines under the sponsorship of a US charity where Vuong, still a child, spent months in a refugee camp.
On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is the coming-of-age of Little Dog, the son of Vietnamese immigrant parents. Set in suburban Hartford, Connecticut, this novel unfolds in narrative fragments where we find Little Dog's mother, Rose, and his grandmother, Lan. All three – grandmother, mother and son – learn to adapt to the US in different ways.
The novel is framed like a letter to 'ma,' (Rose, Vuong's mother). This literary device made it hard for me to connect the characters, most specifically, the relationship between Little Dog and his mother. Because Rose cannot read, the white space and paragraph enjambment could not yawn, or laugh, or talk back, as Rose might have done if she were reading the letter. Despite Vuong's matter of fact nature, the unanswerable rhetoric made me a wary of Little Dog's version.
My main criticism for this novel was its layering. At times, the disconnected narrative felt disjointed and I became confused by transitions in Time, location and thought-form. Though well-construction and written with great promise, many of the messages seemed to begin without becoming, which left me wondering whether the book might have suited another form of chronological clarity.
However, Vuong's mastery is his harshness. On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is uncompromising in its 'seemingly' merciless nature. The poetic details are burdened by sorrow, which makes the novel a poignant real. There is a raw depth to the characters and their situation.