Jan 6, 2015
Alex Dally MacFarlane

Books read (Guo, Byatt, Tidhar, Yi, Sriduangkaew)

I read these books in 2014! Fiction reading has (unsurprisingly) slowed down a lot with the amount of work I need to do on my MSt, but hopefully I’ll have some 2015 reads to talk about… eventually…

Xiaolu Guo, UFO in her Eyes (Vintage: 2010)

Kwok Yun, a woman in a Chinese village, sees a strange light that might be a UFO. The government takes an interest, not only in her but in her village. The village’s chief, Chang Lee, sees this as an opportunity to develop the village into a modern town and starts implementing plans, acquiring funds and changing the lives of everyone in her small village, to predictably mixed results. The novel’s format is government documentation: interviews with various people of the village and reports. I normally like unusual narrative formats, but here I felt it dilutes the potential potency of a story about Kwok Yun and Chang Lee — the two most interesting characters — with a lot of repetitive content from the other characters. The political angle on the story is cynical, the characters are little more than players in their political roles, which is a disappointment when Kwok Yun and Chang Lee are clearly interesting individuals straining to break free from the constrained plot.

A.S. Byatt, Ragnarök (Canongate: 2011)

A slim treat of a book. A thin child, evacuated to the British countryside in World War Two, finds comfort in the ending of Ragnarök: this is no cyclical story, no rebirth-narrative. The world ends, and that is so much more real. It really stuck with me.

Lavie Tidhar, A Man Lies Dreaming (Hodder: 2014)

In Auschwitz, shund-writer Shomer imagines a final pulp narrative: an alternate late 1930s Britain where the infamous Wolf is a down-on-his-luck PI. (I’ve got to say, as ‘unexpectedly fucking genius’ ideas go, this is up there…) That narrative is the majority of the book, but Auschwitz is never far, and it is more than a frame. The set-up allows a dialogue between the two realities: the rather obvious notions of ‘revenge fantasy’ and ‘wish-fulfilment’ colour Shomer’s imagined alternate Britain, but it is more complicated than that. Pulp tropes abound. Other unpleasant realities take hold: it is not possible, I suspect, to imagine a late 1930s Europe that saw the rise of extremism without seeing that extremism carried through to some extent. The rise of Mosley’s British fascists in the alternate history is especially chilling for a British reader today. In Auschwitz, prisoners debate how to write about the Holocaust. The whole book asks: how do you write about Hitler?

It is not the lightest of reads, or, ah, a book I could have bought for my father (I learnt a little more about Hitler’s sex life than I ever expected and wanted to) but it is definitely an interesting book, in the least I-have-nothing-else-to-say-so-I’ll-call-it-interesting way possible. It is deliciously meta, in that it’s aware of what it’s doing, in dialogue with itself, and I’m really into that at the moment. I’m still thinking about it a couple of months later.

Nu Nu Yi, Smile As They Bow, translated by Alfred Birnbaum & Thi Thi Aye (Hyperion: 2008)

A Burmese novel about spirit mediums at the Taungbyon Festival. Daisy Bond, an elder medium, walks the world between man and woman in performance and reality. Min Min, Daisy’s young assistant and lover, wants to get away and be in a more ‘normal’ relationship. The novel deftly balances the extravaganza of a major festival with the minor — and nasty — mundanities of everyday life, which certainly don’t get left behind. Daisy’s gender defies easy definition. In places Smile As They Bow is not pleasant — Daisy treats Min Min abusively, made worse by the fact that Min Min was bought from his parents by Daisy. The purpose is not, however, to portray sympathetic people but to offer a week-long slice-of-life, and at that Smile As They Bow succeeds compellingly. It is beautifully written/translated. I enjoyed aspects of it.

Benjanun Sriduangkaew, Scale-Bright (Immersion Press: 2014)

Julienne is a regular young woman in Hong Kong, anxious and often lonely. After a snake demon, Olivia, drinks from her life force in a time of need, she is forced to face a little more head-on the reality that she also has Chang’e and Houyi for aunts. Scale-Bright follows on from “Woman of the Sun, Woman of the Moon”, “Chang’e Dashes From the Moon” and “The Crows Her Dragon’s Gate”, which are not required pre-reading but recommended (for quality as well as clarity).

What I most loved about Scale-Bright was its depiction of anxiety, internalised fears and the slow process of stepping past those. Also: queer women! So very many. Julienne and Olivia and Chang’e and Houyi are wonderful, as is the writing, whether describing chandeliers of Buddha hands using sign-language (OMG) or the minor moments of realisation in a relationship.

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