[Book Review]: The Vegetarian

The Vegetarian , Han Kang.

There is no easy way to say this. This is a complex book that dwells in the abyss that is the human mind. It toys around with emotions and is rather cold and stoic in the way it settles to narrate the tale of two sisters , Yeong – Hye and In-Hye.

Yeong- Hye leads a pretty normal life. The term normal is an understatement. If I had to trivialise a loveless marriage, emotional impotence, suppressed insecurities, passive aggression, masked intolerance, manipulative relationship, pretend smiles as a BAU normal of a life, then yes, Yeong does lead a normal life. One fine day, she decides to become a vegetarian. She rejects meat of any kind into her diet. This leaves her husband unhappy.

The choice of being a vegetarian, given the Korean context, we are led to believe that the choice is an unpopular one in the society. Yeong’s husband, Mr Cheong is left alone to fend off the snide remarks from the judgemental society. This decision adds tension to their marriage. The family meet up with Yeong’s wider family over a get together and things get worse. Her family feels ashamed of her decision to shun meat. Her dad manages to slap some sense into her.

Push comes to shove and plot details later Yeong gets committed into a mental institution. Oh boy, this is a hard book to review without giving away the plot. I shall have to adopt a different strategy to review the book.

Lets focus on the themes instead.

What is beauty? What one finds ugly is someone else’s white swan. The age old word that says beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder, while that makes sense, it’s also worth the while to note that the eyes that see you as beautiful, do they belong to the people in your immediate world? The book establishes the reality of an unsatisfying relationship. The lack of emotional and physical satisfaction and it’s effect on a relationship is horrifically screamed out in a gentle whisper.

Then comes the whole big bang around the nature of oppression. The tale is about oppression. The tale is about violence. The tale is about the might of the will of a few to crush and stamp on the voice of the others. This is a tale of how fractured people and the way they cope up with a flawed life. What choices do we have? Are we strong enough to even make choices? The helplessness of the circumstance would leave us with thoughts and a tinge of depression.

And then comes the theme around choices. There comes a point in time when we have a moment of pristine , demented, twisted catharsis. We act on that impulse and that action goes on to define the way of our life. How far would one go on that conviction? How far would you defend the honour of your choice? How far would you go? What is the extent of what you’d endure and survive in order to hold on to that singular, one and only hope-like thought of a choice? Our protagonist’s choice to be a vegetarian is one such choice. It spawns from a nightmare and Yeong does what she thinks is the right thing to do. The entire tale is her testament to that choice.

The whole book is a glance into the psychology of a person. From a nightmare to a choice. From a choice to an Action. From reasons around that nightmare to the mind’s projection of what it experienced to what it presents as a nightmare? The whole world of interpretation of intent, cause, symbols and their meanings, this book effortlessly tosses all of that out of the window. The book doesn’t pretend to be a super smart , slick dissertation of the human psychology. It does manage to beautifully outline the consequences of gradual and consistent fracture of the self over prolonged duration of time.

The other big theme in the book is Violence. This is a tricky subject. The violence that Yeong endures is almost a 360 degree wrap.

From physical to emotional, from carnal to exploitation, the violence again this woman comes hidden behind masks of varying socially accepted norms.

It makes us question the status quo of right versus wrong. It holds a big ugly mirror that reflects the archaic values ingrained into a patriarchal society.

What stood out in the book is the history shared by the two sisters. It left me numb through implied pain. The little things that had no significant value , the way the little things add up and in retrospect, turn out to be a series of massive life changers, the tale of the two sisters is a culmination of what ifs and regrets. The subtle horror would run chills down your spine.

The rest of the book is around life, death, and death that one endures through each day of a life. The book also elaborates the soul’s metamorphosis into a butterfly. There is far too much going around in this book. The beauty of this is that you get to take what you want to take away from the book.

It is a definite read, if you are used to reading between the lines. There is so much said across everything that is left unsaid.

Karthik

Coming up next : Shantaram.

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[Book Review] : The white book

Cover page of the White Book

The White Book , Han Kang. Based on a recommendation for Kang’s other book, The Vegetarian, I found myself shopping for books one fine Wednesday evening. I picked a stash of 5 books, The vegetarian, The White book(impulsive pick), How to be human. The other two , I’ll have to head back home to see what I picked.

I picked the white book to read first. There is something so sublime about the way the book is delivered. It’s pure white. It’s does have an air of mystery that surrounds it. The tale starts easy and fast. The narrator, whose name never gets mentioned, lists out words that can be associated with the colour White. Snow, frost, rice, and so on the list goes.

Then the narrator goes on to explain, with extreme obsession for brevity, the context of the words. The entire book is a list of words and what those words stand to convey. Hidden away, very obscurely, behind those words is a tale.

The narrator’s mother , when she was just about 22, births a baby girl whose face was as white as a white rice cake. That baby dies within a few hours. The tale also talks about a city of white. This city looks pristine white from the sky. Upon a closer inspection, the narrator realises that it’s a city wrapped in death and destruction. The city was apparently decimated by them jolly good fella Nazis , sometime in 1944. In the modern day, a replica of the city is build from scratch. The narrator ponders around life of such a city. Everything is new, everything is soulless. She goes on to contemplate the nature of the soul.

Somewhere between the words, the narrator recounts the story her mother used to tell her about the baby that died. That infant did not have the chance to open its eyes. The narrator often ponders the possibility of the soul of that child as being present in her.

A lot of words later, the narrator concludes the tale by describing the child of her own.

This book was not for me. While I struggle to connect the dots, struggle to grasp the things that I did read and totally miss, this book is twice as hard to soak in because it is a very crisp tale and the layout is not a constant narrative.

It feels like a journal of someone during the moments of lucidity while on an epic LSD trip.

Either the book masquerades as a super smart, super sneaky, insightful , deep dive into the nature of life, death and eventful reincarnation or I’m still dumb and too dense to understand the masterpiece.

The quick , not so satisfying read later, I felt insecure about my own ability to comprehend the book. A quick google later, I realised a lot of folks loved the book. It does feel like an emperor’s clothes moment to me. Do I pretend and praise or admit that I didn’t get it?

I don’t get it. Maybe I do need assistance in deciphering the book.

That said, the book feels creepy and claustrophobic. It adds suspense and does keep you wondering and guessing. But that’s all there is to it. I love Murakami. Murakami does not bother siting down and explaining the works as well. But the significant difference is that once you are done with a Murakami, you invest thoughts into it, you contemplate, you ponder , you will struggle to reach your own conclusion.

With this book, I threw my hands up in the air and went HUH!

So, if you chance to pick this book, please do give me a shout and tell me what I have obviously missed!

Coming up next : How to be human

Karthik

[Book Review]: The boy who could see demons

“There can be no faith without bias” – Katz the sober.

The boy who could see demons by Carolyn Jess-Cooke

My name is Alex. I’m ten years old. I like onions on toast and I can balance on the back legs of my chair for fourteen minutes. I can also see demons. My best friend is one. He likes Mozart, table tennis and bread and butter pudding. My mum is sick. Ruen says he can help her. Only Ruen wants me to do something really bad. He wants me to kill someone.’

With that back over , buying the book was a no brainer choice.

The quick snap shot review of the book : Brilliant Story, wonderfully written, engaging plot and intriguing characters, poor lousy lazy ending, but ,and that’s a rather enormous but, it’s a tale worth reading.

Now lets get down to the bits and bolts.

And then there was a tale that was caught right in the middle between the eternal conflict between belief, faith and Schizophrenia. Alex is a ten year old, who lives in Belfast (surviving the aftermath of them troubles) , can see demons and one in particular called Ruen is his best friend of sorts. Ruen wants Alex to kill someone.

Welcome to the world of what the hell is going on.

The world painted , rather scripted in the book is beautifully balanced by the author. We are introduced to the little boy who starts seeing demons on the day he learns that his dad is dead. Ruen, the demon, manifests in different shapes , sizes and forms to Alex’s eyes. Ruen is not seen by the rest of the world. Ruen is a bit of the snobbish, posh kind. He loves Mozart and is far too sophisticated to be the run of the mill hound from hell. In fact , Ruen isn’t the average joe of the demon world. He is a ‘Harrower’ , a top general in the realm of demons.

Ruen is Alex’s best and only friend. Ruen dictates the right words into Alex’s mind. Ruen is in fact the power that helps Alex cope up with his life. The world sees Alex as a bit dense.

Cue in Anya. Anya is a psychiatrist who specialises in paediatric psychology. Anya comes with the baggage of having lost her daughter to a suicide. The cause, Schizophrenia. Anya is broken into far too many pieces but her strength reverberates through the pages of the story. Anya sees Alex as her shot at redemption. She couldn’t save her daughter. She wouldn’t let another kid die.

And so beings the chase of a cat and a mouse. Science and the understanding of mental distress and disorders that it unravels fights heads to head with Demonic possession which has its roots in Faith and belief. Anya and us, the readers, we are introduced to many supernatural-esque capabilities exhibited by Alex. Throw in clairvoyance, access to knowledge beyond the usual means of a normal individual, we witness the battle of the mind. Anya deciphers the clues and finds ways to justify the phenomenon through the eyes of accepted and proven medical science of psychology.

It’s not the case of science hurling sticks and stones on the village idiots of believers. There are things that Anya’s science cannot explain. The story hinges on the uncertainty of what if demons really do exist. The story brings that balance of belief and the debunking of that belief brilliantly. As we dwell deeper and deeper into the minds of the characters, we also get to understand the power of psychology that governs the lives of us, humans.

Alex’s mom is suicidal and her battle reflects upon Alex. Then there is Ruen. A demon whom we cannot easily dismiss as the figment of imagination of a mentally troubled ten year old little boy. The evidences don’t always tally up. Psychology does not explain it all. The alternate world of the super real, super natural does not always sound believable. We journey through the book, living with that conflict.

So is Ruen really a demon? Is Alex really really mentally disturbed? Is there a happy ending for Alex or his suicidal mother? Does Anya finally find redemption? Does science outsmart a world of faith and belief? Do we realize that science, while magnanimous it is, is still too young to explain everything there is to the world?

The book’s conclusion offers some answers to those few questions. Personally, I wasn’t too thrilled about it. The return on the investment that I had made through the pages, was too little by the time the tale ended. The cheesy last minute jump scare was too clichéd and too cheesy and way too subtle to leave a lasting impression. That said, ignoring the book because of one chapter would be a crime. This is a fantastic book and has a smart story to tell. It is well worth the time.

The core of the book is the way of the mind. It captures the ability of a mind to cope up to a trauma that overwhelms it. Some sit and cry, some kill themselves, some sleep off the night and wake up stronger than ever before. For some, their personality rips and they dissociate into multiple personalities with the sole intention of coping up with the trauma. The book, like many other sources, is a beautiful reminder of how fragile the human mind is.

To that fragile nature of the mind, add a hint of God and the Devil. Throw in a healthy bunch of Angels and Demons. What if they are real? What if the human soul really does exist and that the god and the devil are wagering for a piece of that pie? What if a demon, or an angel is not the response coughed by a broken mind? What if a broken mind and the supernatural coexist? Where does that leave us, the vulnerable humans?

There can be no faith without bias. Rest your faith to the modern day gods that go by the name of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Ellon Musk or rest it within the bucket of the many gods that are in our prayers and devils in our nightmare, that faith cannot exist without a bias. Wisdom is gained when we learn to see beyond our bias and observe without resistance and evaluate without prejudice. Maybe there is a lot more to this world. Maybe there is a lot more to the universe that is the human body.

The book does leave you with such questions. To me, that is a better win than a stronger ending.

Four stars . Enjoy the madness. Enjoy the mind trying to see through the madness.

Karthik

Book review : Blood sisters


Cover page of the book Blood Sisters by Jane Corry

Blood Sisters by Jane Corry

Three sisters. One trapped in time, one trapped in her mind and one trapped in death. That neatly sums up the nice little tale of Blood sisters.

The book starts with Alison, who is an artist with a secret locked within her mind. Her life is pretty sober and one fine day, she spots an advert that asks for a art teacher who can help prisoners paint. Far away from a city where she's lived her isolated life, she makes to the four closed walls of an open prison. Her story goes into overdrive from there on.

Then there is Kitty. Survivor of a nasty accident that left her with a damaged mind. She's now a resident of a care home, confined to a wheelchair, a good right hand and a left that she cant ever move, she's trapped with the gifted curse of understanding what the world speaks but her's is a voice that makes no sense to the world around her. The accident leaves her with murky muddied memories that come and go. She remains unaware of the string of events that put her where she was.

Blood sisters is a journey of sorts. Two sisters who never really got along well when they were kids. The accident that changes their lives. Guilt that takes over Alison and obliviousness that plagues Kitty. The story is a constant cry for the love that both need, both are starved off and both are rendered useless to convey to each other because of circumstances. It beautifully captures the sibling rivalry and jealousy. Is it the case of love buried deep within the hearts? The story goes on an exploration to uncover that truth.

The book is made of three acts. One introduces to the present. Two takes us back to the past and three brings us back to the present. I enjoyed the first two acts. I found the third to be a bit boring. But that's just me, I reckon. The third act does have a saving grace. It did tease me with plots that hinted towards the battles of the mind. It was a short tease but I'd have loved , if the entire book was about a troubled mind. Again, that's still just me.

There aren't many layers to the book. I enjoyed the nostalgia of growing up with my two sisters. I'd pick petty fights, we'd hate each other a lot, we did love each other too. Today, we are all old enough to sit back and talk about the good old days. This book does that. It brings back fond memories of the first thread of bonds being formed.

I enjoyed the consequences of living with guilt. Alison is a classic example of someone who is trapped by her own guilt. Should she? Is it right? Is there a better way? Thankfully, the tale kept me engaged and I didn't bother psycho-analysing the possibilities beyond all comprehension. I enjoyed a stoic pleasure of watching her live through hell. It was a gentle reminder of a very simple truth that some times, we do the things that we do and we endure misery because we feel it's the right thing to do!!! Talk about misplaced priorities.

All in all, I'd say it was worth the time I invested into the book. I felt compelled to pull an all nighter to read through the last mile. I quite enjoyed the tale and when I reached the final full stop, I did feel good about the journey of their lives.

Do give it a shot, if all that you want is a casual read 🙂

Karthik