Category Archives: contemporary fiction

Read 30 of 2022. Love in the Big City by Sang Young Park. Translated from the Korean by Anton Hur

Love in the Big City by Sang Young ParkTitle: Love in the Big City
Author: Sang Young Park
Translated from the Korean by Anton Hur Publisher: Tilted Axis Press
ISBN: 978-1911284659
Genre: Literary Fiction, Contemporary Fiction Pages: 231
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

Sang Young Park’s prose along with the translation of Anton Hur did for me what Sally Rooney couldn’t, and I have finally found my closure for not enjoying any of Rooney’s works.

Disclaimer: This is the only time I have brought up Rooney in this review.

Love in the Big City is again one of the International Booker 2022 Long-listed titles that resonated with me like no other, besides Heaven. It is a story of friendship, of love, of lust, and essentially of what it is to navigate all of this in a big city. It is messy, it is loud, and sometimes insufferable as well – the way all love is meant to be, but Sang Young Park and Anton Hur give it another dimension – that of pained self-realisation and temperaments that constantly hover on the page.

The story is of the narrator, Young, and his coming-of-age – from college to postgraduate life in Seoul. The book is about the loves of his life (some not so much loves as episodes of lust) – his roommate, Jaehee who moves out after marriage, his cancer-stricken mother, his activist ex he calls Hyung, and Gyu-ho, who makes up most of the second half of the novel.

As a middle-aged (I cannot even bring myself to say it but it’s the truth) gay man in India, I could relate to so much of the book. Of the relationship with the mother – constantly mercurial, of the men in his life, and of a woman who is your best friend and most of all the gay identity that runs throughout the book.

Young is complicated. It is not easy to like Young and yet you do, because we see so much of ourselves in Young, at least I did.  We lead quiet queer lives, till it isn’t all that quiet anymore. The transformation of the queer life from the 20s to mid-30s is mind-boggling. We go from one extreme to another. We want to be visible and that’s what Young does till he doesn’t want to be unacknowledged.

Relationships are fragile, emotions even more so. The translation by Anton Hur depicts all of this and more, adding a new dimension of his own to the novel. The pride and shame and loneliness of being gay is so apparent and palpable that it scared me as a single gay man in the big city – where everything is big and sometimes all you need is small, tender expressions of love. I search for them. Constantly.

Read 28 of 2022. The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak

Title: The Island of Missing Trees
Author: Elif Shafak
Publisher: Penguin Viking
ISBN: 9780241435007
Genre: Literary Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 354
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

The thing about books like The Island of Missing Trees is that they never slip from memory. They are always fresh and clear. The plot, the characters, and sometimes even certain lines. The Island of Missing Trees is so much and only Shafak could’ve skilfully managed to string it all together, without any thread going to waste.

The Island of Missing Trees is a love story – not just of two people, but also of a fig tree, of a teenager and her family, of love that we have for our homelands from which we are forced to flee, or have to in order to lead better lives, and more than anything else, it is a love story of people and nature.

Two teenagers fall in love in Cyprus – one Turkish, the other Greek. They meet at a taverna which is home to them. Kostas and Defne meet in secret, away from people’s prying eyes, in a tavern with a fig tree at its center. The fig tree watching all, observing their love, and jotting memories as time goes by. A war breaks out. The lovers are separated only to meet decades later, and what happens after that is one of the plot points of the book I don’t want to reveal.

The book travels between the past and the present, giving the readers the perspective of the fig tree, of Kostas and Defne’s daughter Ada, and more importantly of what happens to countries when borders are most sought after.

Shafak’s writing is emotional, it is gut-wrenching in so many places – when she speaks of home, of what it is to be driven away, to see neighbours turning on you – it makes you think of the countries currently in conflict and it is all about this – land for them, home for the people who live there.

The layers to this novel are plenty. On one hand, Shafak tackles mental health and its navigation, on the other – the country at war not only with outsiders, but with itself when it comes to love, of ties that are thicker than blood, and ultimately on the idea of what is home and what makes it familiar. I hope this novel makes it to the shortlist of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022.

Read 205 of 2021. The Man who Lived Underground by Richard Wright

The Man who Lived Underground by Richard Wright

Title: The Man who Lived Underground Author: Richard Wright
Publisher: Library of America
ISBN: 978-1598536768
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 240
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

I was absolutely stunned as I turned the pages and devoured this previously unpublished work of Richard Wright. The Man who Lived Underground is about an innocent black man who gets trapped in double homicide and brutalised by the police force. He is wrongly accused, interrogated for the sake of it, and finally not even entitled to a lawyer to fight his case. This book is set in 1942. Sadly, nothing has changed.

Fred Daniels manages to escape from police custody and enters the sewers, and this is really where the story takes place. He has lost his home, his wife, and his new-born child – all because of his colour and the racism that exists. He is making his way through the sewer questioning life and death, his existence at large, and what will happen to him once he is found by the authorities.

The writing is quick in most parts, verbose in some, but never lets go of the reader. You can see Wright’s touch through and through, but more than that, I also saw a lot of Baldwin in the book. Perhaps Baldwin inspired Wright to write the way he did.

The experience of reading about a man in a sewer is nightmarish, almost allegorical, even magic realism taking on in the prose to some extent. Everything in the sewer takes on a different meaning – from a car sloshing through a puddle, or the scream of a baby, or a shout – it is all different for Fred much like when he exists on the world above.

Wright’s writing cuts to the bone. Empathy flows throughout. There is madness. There is chaos. And it all seems like one big fever dream, an old story told over and over again – when everyday life is taken over by hallucinations in order to make it bearable.

Read 204 of 2021. Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

Title: Klara and the Sun
Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
Publisher: Faber & Faber
ISBN: 978-0571364886
Genre: Literary Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 320
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4/5

There is so much going on in Klara and the Sun that it was impossible for me as a reader to not put the book down and mull over what Ishiguro was trying to say, if one can get what authors try to tell you every single time. Ishiguro’s latest (and long-listed for the Booker Prize 2021) has been published after six long years, and all I have to say is that the wait is worth it.

To understand the concept of Klara, an Artificial Friend, and then to understand her thoughts and feelings and how she makes sense of the world is fascinating. Ishiguro’s writing in this one to me was way different from his other works. There is a sense of restlessness that I felt inside of me as I navigated through Klara and the Sun. Her world is very different and when she’s with her human friend, the perspective changes drastically. Memories merge with Klara’s observations that sometimes she comes across as an unreliable narrator, but that is also another aspect of the novel which is joyous to read.

The latent struggle of trying to make sense of what is going on and at the same time to be true to her human friend is real. The loneliness, the meaning of love, and could she ever love someone, and what makes her who she is are elements so complex and core to the novel.

Klara and the Sun was definitely worth the wait after The Buried Giant. I thought it would be similar to Never Let Me Go or on those lines, but Ishiguro not only surprises you, but sometimes urges you to look at the world differently, and in the process perhaps understand yourself, and maybe even your heart a little more.

Autumn by Ali Smith

Autumn by Ali Smith

Title: Autumn
Author: Ali Smith
Publisher: Anchor Books 
ISBN: 9781101969946
Genre: Literary Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 260
Source: Publisher 
Rating: 5/5

This was a reread for me this year. I had almost forgotten how brilliant this book is, and it is not just about the word-games or the wordplay that Smith uses to her advantage. It is also not about the latent humour that springs itself on you every five pages or so. It is about the writing. The hard-to-contain, the kind of writing that is not limited only to words, the kind of writing that makes you sit up and want to devour the book in one sitting. Autumn for me, is that kind of a book. The book that I will reread perhaps once more before this year ends. 

Autumn by Ali Smith is the first in a quartet. The season quartet as it is called. Autumn is the season of mists, of melancholy, of trees shedding leaves, of changing colours, of perhaps to see clearly, and make peace with the fact that life isn’t stationary. Autumn by Ali Smith is all of this and more. It is called “the Brexit novel”, but to me it is so much more. A lot more. Autumn is about friendship, love, art, identity, forgetfulness, ageing, of how much the world means to us, and how much we perhaps leave behind. 

It is essentially the story of Elisabeth, and her next-door neighbour Daniel Gluck, about 70 years her senior. The friendship that started when she was but a little girl, who is now a woman in her early 30s, and he is centenarian. She goes to meet him at the home for the aged. She reads to him. Constantly reading to him. There is a lot of back and forth between the present and the past in the book, which worked for me through and through. Elisabeth and Daniel’s relationship is charted through the years, of what he teaches her about art, beauty, and the nature of living. Of how she takes it all in. Of the unspoken beauty of friendship, that doesn’t come with any condition of age or time or wisdom. It just is. 

Autumn is energetic, brimming with wordplay, there is so much to it – the layers just keep peeling – perhaps also with every reread. It is also the story of Christine Keeler, of the Profumo fame, and how art plays a role in all of it. It is the story of how we function as humans. Ali Smith’s writing is perfect as far as I am concerned. No phrase or sentence is out of place, or not needed. Everything makes sense and sometimes nothing does. But that’s the beauty of her writing. You read. You pause. You savour what she serves, and you right back for a reread. I for one, cannot wait to now read Winter.