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The Monday Review, week twenty four

1. The Vegetarian, Han Kang

Yeong-hye and her husband live an ordinary life. 'The course of their married life ran smoothly [...] approaching the five-year mark, and since they were never madely in love to begin with, they were able to avoid falling into that stage of weariness and boredom that can otherwise turn married life into a trial.' Yeong-hye, especially, was a quiet, subdued woman. 'A completely orderinary wife who went about things with any distasteful frivolousness. [...] She was a woman of few words. It was rare for her to demand anything,' p. 11 - 12. But when splintering, distressing nightmares begin to haunt her thoughts, Yeong-hye becomes obssessed with the idea of purging her body and mind. She renounces meat. Yeong-hye's vegetarianism opposes societal mores. This passive rebellion manifests itself in growing forms. Written on the novel's back cover blurb: 'scandal, abuse and estrangement send Yeong-hye spiraling deep into the spaces of her fantasy.' In this complete metamorphosis of both mind and body, Yeong-hye moves ---- 'impossibly, ecstatically, tragically' ---- far from herself. This book is deeply sad.


2. Death Note, Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata (Volume II & III)

This week continued the Death Note saga with writer Tsugumi Ohba and graphic artist Takeshi Obata. A second Kira is featured. She is a dynamic, sweet faced girl whose reputation as a model and orphan carries depth in the narrative. She forces her way into Light's life --- desperate to become his love and servant, because she believes him to be the Knight who brought retribution to her parents' murder.


3. Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden

Memoirs of a Geisha is a gorgeous historical fiction novel, well-wrought with characters that move 'like water flowing down a hill, going more or less in one direction until [they] splash into something that forces [them] to find a new course.' Given to us in first-person narration, Memoirs of a Geisha follows Chiyo Sakamoto through her life as it bounds into and around the small curvatures of a river: how a minnow become a stone / became a silver trout fished out greedily / to be served on a beautiful platter with all the dressings of a traditional meal.

Golden's novel draws thoughtfully upon his research into the lives of Geishas living in Kyoto, Japan, before, during and after World War II. Much of the novel is set in Gion, Kyoto, and contains references to buildings frequented by giesha and their patrons. A couple of scenes also depict the Amami Islands and Waldorf towers in New York City.

According to sources, incl. The New York Times, Golden was sued for breach of contract by Mineko Iwasaki after the Japanese edition of the novel was published. Mineko Iwasaki had been interviewed as a retired geisha and requested anonymity due to a code of silence she wanted to protect. Due to a source-acknowledgement, Iwasaki faced death threats and serious backlash, and while Golden countered that he had tapes of his conversations with Iwasaki, an agreement was reached between both in 2003, six years after the novel's original publication date. Iwasaki's later autobiography, Geisha of Gion reveals a very different picture of 20th century geisha life.

I would recommend Memoirs of a Geisha. The prose is delicate and expressive, beautifully wrenching in its colour palette and word choice. The narrative moves quietly, and with interludes of great force. Grief, a prominent theme throughout the novel, is detailed in the quote below.

Grief is a most peculiar thing; we're so helpless in the face of it. It's like a window that will simply open of its own accord. The room grows cold, and we can do nothing but shiver. But it opens a little less each time, and a little less; and one day we wonder what has become of it.

This quote – reflecting refractions of grief – captures the weight that so many of us have felt during the last year, in seasons of sorrow, isolation and sickness. I would highly recommend this novel.


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