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Lit Review: ‘Four Treasures of the Sky’ by Jenny Tinghui Zhang

by Cass Chia

When I started reading Jenny Tinghui Zhang’s Four Treasures of the Sky, seated behind the counter at work, I wasn’t expecting to fall so deeply in love. A stirring debut of historical and literary fiction, Four Treasures explores a young girl’s coming of age set against the backdrop of historical and personal tragedy.

Born in 19th-century China to a loving family, 13-year-old Daiyu has spent her life in the shadow of her namesake Lin Daiyu — a doomed maiden from Chinese folklore. When Daiyu loses her parents under ominous circumstances, she can’t help but feel that her name is to blame. Her grandmother sends Daiyu off to Zhifu, a seaport town, disguised as a boy named Feng, where she meets Master Wang, the owner of a calligraphy school. With his guidance, Daiyu unlocks a love for calligraphy that breathes new life into her distressing world.

But her fate sours once again when she is abducted, smuggled across the ocean and sold to a brothel. In America, Daiyu becomes Peony. Every day is a fight for survival with only Master Wang’s teachings for comfort. When an opportunity to return to China arises, Daiyu manages to escape the brothel only to face cruel betrayal. She ends up in Pierce, Idaho, where she is taken in by two Chinese shopkeepers, Nam and Lum, and a violinist named Nelson — all of whom know her as Jacob Li. As anti-Chinese sentiment spreads across the country, Daiyu’s newfound stability is threatened, and she faces a difficult choice: should she stay or go?

Four Treasures of the Sky is a powerful story about searching for identity despite extreme circumstances. As I sat to write this review, I was stumped on what to even call the narrator. Daiyu, Feng, Peony, Jacob Li. Which name is the most truthful to the character? Which name is the least? Is she all of them at once, or something else entirely? (The answer to why I landed on ‘Daiyu’ lies in the ending, so no spoilers!) To most of us, finding who we are is an organic process; to Daiyu, that timeline is a luxury. Seeing Daiyu deal with impossible situations time and time again with the measliest of resources is a gruelling experience. But the high stakes are what make her hero’s journey so compelling. When Daiyu finally succeeds and learns to forge her own identity, I was moved, haunted and ultimately satisfied.

In terms of craft, the book is elegant in its economy. The writing is buoyant, the pacing quick, and the world brilliantly immersive. What makes Four Treasures special, however, is how it bridges lyrical prose and loaded subject matter, especially given that part of the book was inspired by real-world events following the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Zhang deftly delivers emotional punches one after another, and you barely have time to appreciate the setup before feeling the blow. Here’s a little taste of what I mean:

“[In America], I am special. The white people make me that way. Why else would they step aside when I walk by, or avoid my eyes, or whisper things that I cannot hear under their breath? My body is covered in the syllables of another language, the scroll of a kingdom that has existed long before they did and will continue existing long after they are gone. I am something they cannot fathom. I am something they fear. We all are.” (207-208)

Thus, Zhang proclaims the beauty in pain, and how that beauty is anchored in art, history and community.

This book has earned its place as one of my favorite books, period. If you’re in the market for a heartbreaker, Four Treasures of the Sky is for you. Prepare to be sucked in and sucked dry.

Get a copy of the book here.

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Lit Review: ‘At the End of the Matinee’ by Keiichiro Hirano

by Fong Min Hun

If there is a lesson to Keiichiro Hirano’s At the End of the Matinee, it is this: love endures. A quiet romance replete with all the clichés, Matinee can, nevertheless, resonate with the right reader at the right time. It is also a reminder that however much love can strike one like a bolt of lightning, a whole series of accidents and happenstances need to fall into place in order for love to work. 

Matinee is the story of two people, Satoshi Makino and Yoko Komine. The former is a genius classical guitarist and the latter a renowned journalist. The two meet entirely by chance as they both reach what would be the first apex of their respective careers and were immediately drawn to each other. Their time together at the first meeting is short, but they would build their relationship through emails and video calls, finding succor in the company of the other even as they find their individual powers starting to wane.

But the course of true love never does run smooth, and the very deliberate intervention of Makino’s jealous suitor proves insurmountable for the pair. They separate and life goes on. They find new partners, start families but neither can shake the feeling that something essential is missing in their lives. They eventually come to know of the sequence of unfortunate events that had led to their break up, which brings with it some comfort. They are drawn again to each other, but has too much time passed, for better and for worse, to pick up where things had left off?

There is little that is new in Matinee but the old-fashioned charm it does possess makes for a refreshing read. The lovers are earnest and uncomplicated, and the relationship is derailed only due to the highly unlikely and malicious intervention of a third party, whose only function in the book, really, is to do just that. There are no last minute dashes to the airport—

He didn’t want to do anything that drastic—or rather, he didn’t want Yoko to put him in the position of having to do something that drastic… he had the painful feeling that going after her would not only make him into [sic] a pitiable figure but the fact that she’d made him go might also lower her ever so slightly in his estimation.

—because, let’s face it, those Hail Mary passes never work. Lofty discussions are liberally scattered throughout the dialogue to remind us that our lovers are forces of nature to be reckoned with, wholly constituted with intimate knowledge of Bach, art house films and philosophy. 

It will be difficult to imagine At the End of the Matinee standing as a testament to the endurance of love or as a story of romance par excellence but there are certainly layers in the book that deserve further attention. There are pleasures to be had from the story, and the loftiness is told well enough to be interesting and only occasionally hint at their being artifices for a more profound truth. Worth picking up together with a nice chardonnay from the left bank.

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Lit Review: ‘The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again’ by M. John Harrison

by Fong Min Hun

A few years ago, I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to accompany my wife and her brother on their sibling-bonding hike up Mt. Kinabalu. This was — is — something that I am not particularly keen to do, and the only reason I would have ventured to do so would be out of love or, as it was in this case, out of spite. The hike up Kinabalu is not particularly difficult or treacherous but it can be dire when the weather is inclement — which it was — and when the hiker at issue is unfit and overweight — which I was. There were plenty of occasions on the way when I’d simply wanted to quit, turn around and say, this is not for me. However, it was one of those occasions in life when you just had to keep going forward because you couldn’t turn back. 

M. John Harrison’s The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again reminds me of that hike: beautiful, grueling, unforgettable, momentous. I would add ‘regrettable’ but as with the hike, I think I’m rather glad for having read the book/ascended the mountain than if I had not. It is not the most accessible of books and it does not yield readily to judgements of “I liked it” or not; indeed, it may be almost sublime (in the technical sense of the term). Seldom does a book prompt immediate re-reading but this one did, if only for one to piece together the various clues scattered throughout the book.

Sunken Land follows the lives of two protagonists: Shaw and Victoria, unlikely middle-aged lovers whose lives are linked by a conspiracy website and the myth of an ancient, atavistic race of water people. Both are gripped in some form of low-key existential crisis — Shaw, recently unemployed, checks into a low-rent guest house on the bank of the Thames while Victoria, tired of city life, opts to move into her late mother’s house in Shropshire in the Midlands. They have a tenuous relationship, further strained by Shaw’s continuing effort to give up any and all forms of agency, while Victoria’s attempt at bucolic life is interrupted by a parade of strange characters at her new home by the river Severn. 

Shaw picks up work with the eccentric Tim Swann whom he meets at a cemetery harvesting muddy water from a depression in the ground. A general dogsbody, Shaw is set to work on a number of seemingly random tasks, including visiting derelict wholesalers in the depressed outskirts of Greater London, jotting down the testimony of a retired civil engineer who had been arrested for violent disorder, and video recording the actions of a psychic during a séance. Shaw is happy to go along with Tim’s increasingly strange bequests, including the transport of a pale green body from a swimming pool to places unknown and bearing witness to an incestuous coupling.

Victoria, meanwhile, settles into a community where the locals seem to be participants in a strange cult that has as its bible Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, a Victorian-era fable about a boy who transforms into a water sprite. Her only friend is Pearl, the owner of a café in town who occupies a queenly position of sorts in relation to the other oddballs in town. Victoria’s suspicions become even more piqued by the strange gatherings of men in the middle of the night, a mysterious voice calling out to her at all hours of the day, and Pearl disappearing into a pond only inches deep. 

Drained by their experiences, Shaw and Victoria meet once more but find themselves unable or unwilling to connect with each other. “I’m living without explanations, if you can understand that,” Shaw explains at one point. And Victoria: “I always want to tell you about my life but somehow I never can. Isn’t that weird?” 

No and yes. 

From a plot perspective, Shaw is doing exactly what he says — living without explanations. Things happen to him, around him, by him, but he is simply there accreting circumstances. One reviewer describes Shaw as “post-critical” — he no longer questions or wonders or connects, but simply allows things to happen around him, effectively transcending the subject-object dichotomy. This aloofness, if it can be called that, finally fails him at the end of the book:

Shaw stood in the doorway. He became convinced there was another person in the room with them, then recognised in a single pure instant that it was himself. Events seemed to have paralysed him, casting his consciousness into the old root of his brain whence it struggled to escape.

Victoria, who has more of her wits about her, finds that she, too, has lost her agency. Driven into a psychic noose by the cult-like inhabitants of her city, Victoria confronts a reality of her home in the Midlands that jars with her big city London sensibilities. Unlike Shaw, she is caught in an eschatological maze that defies her will at every turn and prods and leads her to an inescapable fate.

Reviewers have read in Sunken Land a psychogeography of Brexit Britain. While it may be difficult for anyone not residing in Britain to ascertain the veracity of that claim, it must be said that Sunken Land can be a discomfiting experience. The inconclusive and allusive plot that leads the reader on with the promise of closure — “Everyone gets an answer in the end,” an exasperated Victoria is told; “All will be revealed” Tim tells Shaw on another hapless adventure — never comes to a satisfying close. And yet there is something beautiful but haunting in the writing that both gladdens and terrifies at the same time; while I’m reluctant to draw parallels with Lovecraft, there is more than a nod in that direction viz the watery gothic imagery that saturates Sunken Land. The book is also about forgotten places: spaces left behind and forgotten by the passage of time, and in which the distinction between legend and reality becomes inseparable. 

This was my first Harrison. Despite a substantial backlist of work in the realms of speculative and literary fiction spanning decades, I’d not come across his work until he showed up in my newsfeed as having won the Goldsmiths Prize for 2020. I tend to give this award, which recognises excellence in experimental writing, a wide berth. I will likely continue to do so but Sunken Land will at least make me pause to reconsider, and pick up a book out of spite. 

The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again is available here.

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Lit Review: ‘How to Avoid a Climate Disaster’ by Bill Gates

by Fong Min Hun

Bill Gates’ How to Avoid a Climate Disaster doesn’t set out to change your mind about climate change. Not really. Instead, Gates — who says he thinks more like an engineer than anything else — sets out to do what an engineer does best: the book is a comprehensive and accessible summary of the problem, and the tools and solutions that he thinks will help stave the climate disaster. Which is not to say that he is a climate fatalist — say like Jonathan Franzen — Gates is optimistic throughout (almost annoyingly so) but one can expect no less from a billionaire philanthropist who has spent the better part of this century on aid programmes and developmental schemes. 

The main thesis of the book is that humanity needs to reduce our current rate of carbon emission from 51 billion tonnes each year to, well, zero within the next few generations. Failing to do so would result in disasters of epic proportions that will be costly both in terms of resources and human lives. He then goes on to detail the main human activities that must be addressed in order to curb carbon emissions — power generation, construction, transportation, heating and agriculture — and some of solutions that are already available or on the horizon that may solve the issue. Gates is a wonk so no surprise that his solution to climate change is a technological one. 

He is well aware that climate change is as much a geopolitical issue as it is a technological one; carbon emissions will only increase as lower income nations climb up the value chain and it would be “immoral and impractical” to try to stop them. The only solution, it seems, is to once again put our faith in the marketplace and price the new carbon-neutral or carbon-negative alternatives so that they become more affordable than the current carbon-emitting solutions. This will require a radical rethinking of existing laws and pricing mechanisms that must of necessity be cross-border and holistic. 

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster is a handy guide which gathers all the relevant information into one place. If nothing else, it is an accessible and informative book that spells out the scale and challenges of the problem. However, climate change is perhaps the intersectional issue and any solution that addresses it from one or two perspectives, as this book does, may seem ineffective. How to Avoid a Climate Disaster might not change any minds, but it might give the right reader some ideas on how they might make a greater contribution. 

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Lit Review: ‘Klara and the Sun’ by Kazuo Ishiguro

by Fong Min Hun

It’s difficult to read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun without locating it among the rest of his writing. What makes the job more difficult is the Nobel laureate’s tendency to produce variations on a theme, unlike, say, David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas, Bone Clocks, Utopia Avenue) whose past performance is no guarantee of future results. Ishiguro’s self-professed “dirty secret” is that he has only ever written one book over and over again with varying levels of virtuosity.  

Ishiguro’s big tussle in each of his books is invariably the question of truth and the reliability of his limited and flawed narrators. These narrators construct imprecise and incongruous worldviews because it turns out that these are essential to their survival. In Never Let Me Go, Kathy H. and her fellow clones hold on to the unlikely hope that a display of their humanity will delay their inevitable sacrifice. Masuji Ono in An Artist of the Floating World can only justify his existence by believing himself to have been a far greater monster than he really was. Stevens, the butler of the Nazi-sympathising Lord Darlington in Remains of the Day, sacrifices truth at the altar of duty and dignity until he can no longer afford to do so. 

Whatever their flaws, these narrators remain sympathetic characters if only because they reflect our own fragile grip on the meaningfulness of the world, and our need to create narratives for ourselves despite our own limited and narrow understanding of the people and events around us. The difference for Ishiguro’s characters is that they are almost always ultimately caught in their self-deceit; as Stevens says, “One is not struck by the truth until prompted quite accidentally by some external event.”

So what do we make of Klara in Klara and the Sun, the protagonist of Ishiguro’s eighth and most recent book? An Artificial Friend, or AF, Klara was built to be a companion for children in a fractured society that has stratified into an Orwellian caste system. Power has become concentrated in the hands of the few while automatons increasingly act as “substitutes” for human workers. Schools have been shut down in favour of homeschooling through remote devices known only as Oblongs, and chosen scions of a select few participate in a genetic editing process that results in their being ‘lifted’. Brought up in isolation, children in this dystopia socialise in mediated “interaction meetings” where they practise disguising their backhanded compliments as social grace. (This dystopic future, written in a time of pandemic, seems almost laughably kitsch until one realises that it’s not too far off from the current state of learning.) 

The world in Klara and the Sun is not a happy place; but it is a hallmark of Ishiguro’s novels that the worst evils are attenuated through the use of normalised language: “lifted” and  “substituted” in Klara, or “completions” in Never Let Me Go referring to the death of an organ donor mid-vivisection. Klara’s world is a morass of contradictions and genteel horrors, but as with Ishiguro’s other books, this horror is very much softened by Klara’s experience and understanding. 

Precocious for an AF with unique powers of observation and synthesis, Klara begins life as a display model at the AF store. Because of these traits, she is  extremely sensitive to the nuance and patterns of human behaviour around her, even when they are incongruous with each other. This comes up in an interesting bit of philosophy of mind when Ishiguro describes just how an AF might view the world, which builds a unified intuition from discrete perceptions that are given to her in discrete perceptions a la Kant. When contradictions in her perceptions occur, the unity is broken up into individual “boxes”, indicating that the scene before her is contradictory, confusing or otherwise incongruous. For example, In one passage, her perception of the store manager is broken into boxes, one of which showed her eyes “that were filled with kindness and sadness” even as another box focused on the manager’s jaw which reflected “anger and frustration”. 

These incongruities would pop up regularly during her time spent with Josie, the teenager who purchases Klara and brings her home. Josie is very ill and her relationship with the people in her lives are tense, especially in relation to her overbearing mother, Chrissie, and her neighbour, Rick, with whom she has a youthful romance. Josie has already lost her older sister Sal to a similar sickness, and the loss has coloured her world — from the estrangement of her father to her mother’s overprotective demeanour. 

Klara is an excellent AF, not just to Josie but to the other people in her lives. Reflective and spiritual — again, unique traits for an automaton — she becomes involved in the private sufferings of the people around Josie. Incapable of self-deception, Klara’s beliefs and actions are motivated by her empirical observations and her sense of duty. Nevertheless there is something at the core of her being that adds to the synthesis, which motivates her to make some very un-AF-like decisions, such as rejecting a potential customer while waiting for Josie to return to the store, and deducing the nature of love in her reflections at the end of the book. Klara may not be an unreliable narrator in the traditional sense, but neither is her portrayal of the world one that is truly representative. (Then again, whose understanding of the world can be truly representative?)

As with Ishiguro’s other books, the world constructed in Klara and the Sun is by necessity narrowed by the first-person perspective, but one of Ishiguro’s strengths is his ability to do so without suffocating the reader. Instead, it becomes an intimate marriage of self and experience which leads to beautifully reflective prose. An oddity in the book, however, is the tonality of the dialogue between the teenaged children who speak with an American patois that is distinct from everyone else in the book. It broke the reading momentum the first few times I encountered them but they eventually became niggling irritations rather than severe disruptions. 

There are some inexplicable issues in the book; for example, how does an AF with a highly developed scientific cognitive mind fail to understand the true nature of the sun? Or misidentify objects such as a roadworks machine to be some sort of mythological creature of evil? It is unclear if Ishiguro’s world is logically consistent, but then again perhaps that is not the point of this book, or any of his books for that matter. Klara and the Sun might not hit the same artistic heights as his previous novels but it is still a beautifully quiet, elegant novel. 

Klara and the Sun is available in hardback (RM116) and trade paperback (RM75.50) here.

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Susanna Clarke returns with mystery novel ‘Piranesi’ 16 years after epic debut

by Elaine Lau

Susanna Clarke’s new novel, Piranesi, is a mystery. It is not, as the title might suggest, a novel about the 18th century Italian architectural artist famed for his etchings of Rome and atmospheric imaginary prisons. But his art must have served as inspiration for the British author, for in her novel we enter a dreamlike World that is at once beguiling and bewildering, haunting and enigmatic — much like the Italian master’s exquisite artworks.

This World is a decaying House with an innumerable number of marble halls like “an infinite series of classical buildings knitted together” and divided into three levels. The tides inhabit the Lower Halls, the Upper Halls are the “Domain of the Clouds”, whereas the Middle Halls are the “Domain of birds and of men”. Statues of varying sizes and composition inhabit every nook and cranny of this labyrinthine House. Outside, there is only the sun, moon and stars, and nothing else.

We know this from the journal entries of the novel’s titular character, Piranesi, although he tells us that is not his name. He regards the House with reverence and childlike wonder, and considers himself a “Beloved Child of the House”. Piranesi believes he is between 30 and 35 years old, and considers himself “a scientist and an explorer” who is determined to explore as much of the House as he can in his lifetime. He records every happening in his notebooks, be it tidal patterns or the behaviour of the rooks that come to nest, and catalogues the thousands of Statues.

Piranesi subsists on fish, seaweed and molluscs, and tends to the 13 skeletons in the House. Aside from biweekly visits from a figure called simply The Other — who is on a quest to uncover “a Great and Secret Knowledge hidden somewhere in the World” and needs his help — Piranesi lives a contented life of solitude.

One can draw parallels of his solitary existence with Clarke’s own ex­perience of finding solace in con­finement. For the past 15 years, the British author has been suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome, among other conditions, which has at times impeded her writing and caused her to withdraw from the world. In an interview with The New Yorker, she said that she would imagine herself in a place with “endless buildings but silent — I found that very calming”.

Clarke became a literary sensation with her 2004 debut novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. This heady 800-page period fantasy tale of rivalling magicians set in sumptuously detailed 19th-century England won the 2005 Hugo Award, among other prizes, and sold more than four million copies worldwide. The novel firmly established Clarke’s narrative prowess and she was heralded as an exciting new literary voice to watch.

Which is why her second novel, Piranesi, published in September, was met with keen anticipation, especially more so because it has been 16 years since her debut. Piranesi is a very different animal from her debut — gone are the loquaciousness and helical plotline that made Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell either an exhilarating or laborious read, depending on whom you ask. By contrast, Piranesi is a breezy 270-page novel of bite-size journal entries in straightforward language. But its deceptively simple form belies the story’s complexity and inventiveness. Clarke has crafted an evocative novel that explores alternate worlds, memory and the sense of self, madness and imagination, and the detrimental pursuits of the vainglorious.

Piranesi is a mystery, and true to form, the first 80 pages or so rendered me utterly mystified. But as with all well-constructed mysteries, it gets good, and it subverts all expectations.

Where things start to shift is when The Other tells Piranesi that someone is looking to infiltrate their labyrinth and means to cause harm, and he should not engage with this person, whom Piranesi dubs “16”. But of course, 16 does show up, and here is when the story turns into a puzzle-box mystery. We follow along with Piranesi as he slowly puts the pieces together and, in the process, uncover his real identity and past — and what a bombshell of a reveal it turns out to be.

But more than plot, Piranesi is an exquisite depiction of something primeval, namely man’s earliest attempts to make sense of our sublimely ordered universe. It comes as no surprise that the arrangement of Piranesi’s World is eerily reminiscent of ancient cosmology, whose ordering of the universe is perhaps more a reflection of the human psyche, in its attempt to impose a meaning to his wonderment and place in it.

This article first appeared on Oct 12, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.

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Cures for Loneliness: Of Memoirs, Biographies and Stories from Elsewhere

By William Tham

Two books by the British writer, Olivia Laing, are curiously offbeat in their fusion of travelogues and memoir, which are best read back-to-back. The Trip to Echo Spring takes the uniquely American form of the road trip, to the Deep South and eventually the shoreline of the Pacific Northwest, filtered through her very British perspective, passing through towns and cities where writers ranging from Fitzgerald to Hemingway and Carver to Tennessee Williams drank away for a multitude of reasons. Very much like her first book, To the River, which weaves in a walk along the River Ouse and the stories associated with it, including the suicide of Virginia Woolf, Echo Spring contains elements of memoir, touching on relationships and a damaged childhood.

But it is in the third book, The Lonely City, where Laing’s fusion of facts and memoir is most concerted. She draws parallels not just between artists and the loneliness, but also her own sense of isolation in the wake of a jagged end to a relationship that left her alone in New York. For her, “[l]oneliness is personal and it is also political.” Her subjects, more focused and intimate than in her previous book, come to life in the pages. Through the text, she weaved together artists from various points of the 20th century, all of whom moved through New York at one point or another. Her biographical subjects – Andy Warhol, David Wojnarowicz, Edward Hopper and Klaus Nomi to name a few – all of whom battled loneliness in some form or another, amplified by the city.

The sense of isolation imposed by cities is curious, despite the fact that they crush people together. There is a facelessness to uninterrupted architecture, filled with people who have either call it home or are just transient visitors or newcomers. It breeds an aloofness that prevents the formation of the necessary human bonds that tie us together. We can be physically close but a psychological separation remains. Perhaps this is why Laing’s book hits so hard. I bought a copy of the book on a street that I had walked along for years, yet I never knew anything about the people who lived and worked on even the short stretch where the bookshop stood. And in an age of instant communication and digital media, of fleeting attention spans and the shallowness of online dating, Laing’s meditations on the counterintuitive sense of separation that the Internet imposed struck especially hard.

There was a curious sadness woven through the course of the narrative, which itself was interspersed with almost voyeuristic snatches into Laing’s own life as she navigated lost love and an escape from her own loneliness. Was it a temporary state? An endless trap with no way out?

Perhaps it was necessary for her to be temporarily alone to learn how the human heart and human nature operated. For her she arrived at two cures: “learning how to befriend yourself and understanding that many of the things that seem to afflict us as individuals are in fact a result of larger forces of stigma and exclusion, which can and should be resisted.”

William Tham is a Malaysian author of two books, Kings of Petaling Street, and The Last Days.

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Lit Review: ‘The Honjin Murders’ and ‘The Inugami Curse’ by Seishi Yokomizo

by Fong Min Hun

That the last few months have been stressful is an understated and moot statement so much so that the declaration needs no further elaboration. Escapism, therefore, was very much called for so far as my reading was concerned. As a result of which, anyone going through my recently-read list will find a substantial collection of pulp science fiction and detective novels, most of which were re-reads (familiarity is an effective, if temporary, balm for the soul). 

It was during this time that I came across the newly published translations of Seishi Yokomizo’s detective novels The Honjin Murders and The Inugami Curse by Pushkin Vertigo. (Full disclosure: despite being a fan of Japanese crime thrillers and murder mysteries, I was not at all familiar with the Yokomizo name despite there being a literary award named after him. This may be due to the fact that only one of his novels had been published previously — The Inugami Curse was released as The Inugami Clan in 2013 by a previous publisher.)

I was thrilled to learn that the books were set in inter-war/post-WWII Japan as I had just come off a Sherlock Holmes binge and was very much still in the mood for period detective fiction. Likewise, both books feature a brilliant young detective, Kosuke Kindaichi, who has a good shout of being lumped together with the greats such as Auguste Dupin, Poirot and, of course, Holmes himself. It comes as little surprise that Yokomizo was a self-declared fan of the popular mystery novels of Western authors, particularly John Dickson Carr, and the Honjin Murders, a locked-room mystery, is very much a tip of the hat in Carr’s direction.  

Picture this: the heir of the wealthy landowning Ichiyanagi family (former proprietors of a honjin — an inn frequented by warlords and other Japanese nobility in feudal Japan) and his new bride are found dead in their chambers on the night of their wedding. Both are stabbed to death and the murder weapon, a katana, is found blade down in a snowbank metres outside the chamber. On the days leading up to the double-murder, a mysterious and terrifying three-fingered man was spotted around the estate and making enquiries of the dead man. The manic playing of a koto (Japanese zither) could be heard in the nights leading up to the murder and on the murder night itself. Moreover, it takes only three fingers to play the koto… 

As with all good detective novels, it seems that everyone in the extended family — the brothers, cousin and mother included — has a motive to kill except for the youngest sister who, being a bit simple, seems to be the only one who is innocent. But she is an expert koto player and seems to know more than she can or will let on. The local police are baffled, suspecting everyone and no one in equal measure. Enter Kindaichi, an eccentric-looking young man who has only recently started his detective practice following a less than stellar start in life. With a string of successive cases under his belt and the endorsement of the influential adoptive father of the dead bride, Kindaichi goes to work on the family. 

The Honjin Murders is a wonderfully descriptive piece of period detective fiction replete with quirky family, mysterious bordering on supernatural suspense and numerous thrusts and parries between our hero detective and the unknown perpetrator. But as with all locked-room mysteries, much of the book’s success hinges on the big reveal of the murder mechanism at the end with three possibilities: the mechanism is not clever enough, the mechanism is just clever enough, or the mechanism tries to be too clever. I think we can safely scratch out the first possibility although I leave it to the reader to decide where the book fits in respect to the remaining two options. 

Having been introduced to Kindaichi, we encounter him again in The Inugami Curse, which is set immediately after Japan’s defeat in WWII. It is again an unhappy family that is the seat of all ills. The story proper begins with the repatriation of one of the potential heirs of the wealthy and influential Inugami family following the completion of his tour of duty in Southeast Asia which left him a broken and disfigured man. The patriarch of the family had died a few months prior leaving behind express instructions that his will remain unread until the entire family could gather together. 

But this was no gentle, wise old family head who expired; rather, it becomes immediately clear that there was a vicious streak in him that bore no love for either of his three daughters or their children. The will that is read is particularly divisive, with the fate of the bequest very much determined by the actions of a couple of outsiders including the granddaughter of a former benefactor and his illegitimate son by another, unrecognised woman. Moreover, the will is so structured that there is a very good chance that only one of the daughters would stand to inherit the fortune leaving the other two branches of the family very much out in the cold. 

With razor sharp claws honed by years of ambition and indifferent treatment by their father, the three vituperative daughters will go to any means to secure the substantial wealth and businesses of the Inugami clan for their branch of the family. Kindaichi is first called on to the scene by one of the lawyers involved in the case because of several failed attempts at the life of one of the players in the will; however, the lawyer is himself killed before he can divulge his findings to the detective. So Kindaichi stays on and becomes an indispensable tool to the local police when, one by one, the heirs to the fortune are found dead in mysterious circumstances. 

A quick google of The Inugami Curse reveals that it is one of Yokomizo’s more favoured novels with several movie adaptations made from it, and it is not difficult to see why. Compared to The Honjin Murders, Inugami is a more accomplished murder mystery that is made more complex by the competing motivations of the various actors in the novel. This may mean quite a few side plots and red herrings, but Yokomizo is masterful enough to tie up all the loose ends in a satisfying ending while maintaining a good level of suspense throughout the book. The Inugami Curse may also be the only detective novel which features a manhunt on skis, although this may just mean that I don’t read enough Scandi noirs. 

It’s difficult for a non-Japanese reader to really gauge Yokomizo’s influence on the genre, but a regular reader of Japanese crime thrillers should be able to feel the distant echoes. Both books are really good yarns, and I for one am looking forward to the other translations of Yokomizo sensei’s works promised by Pushkin Vertigo. 

Verdict: The Honjin Murders (7/10); The Inugami Curse (8/10)

Availability: RM52.90 for The Honjin Murders, and RM56.50 for The Inugami Curse — both in paperback

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Lit Review: ‘The Girl and the Ghost’ by Hanna Alkaf

by Elaine Lau

I stopped reading children’s books when I became a teenager and graduated to ‘older’ works such as western classics and crime fiction. It wasn’t until we opened Lit Books that I rediscovered middle-grade fiction and found to my utter delight a world replete with gems.

Many of these stories of adventure and hijinks are about meeting life’s difficulties and complexities with courage and hope. Good middle-grade fiction tackle weighty issues without dumbing it down and without being preachy. When it is done well, my god does it make my heart sing — and I reckon, it will you, too, dear adult reader, and not just your child. To quote WH Auden, “There are good books which are only for adults… but there are no good books which are only for children.”

When Malaysian author Hanna Alkaf revealed at the author event for her debut young adult novel, The Weight of Our Sky, at our store last year that her next book will be a children’s novel, I looked forward to it with not a small amount of excitement. The Girl and the Ghost is the novel in question, published this month by HarperCollins, and it is a deliciously chilling novel about family legacies, friendship, and jealousy, but also forgiveness, kindness, and courage.

The story begins with Suraya inheriting a pelesit, a familiar spirit from the witch grandmother whom she’s never met. A bit of a loner who grows up with an emotionally absent mother, Suraya grows up with the pelesit — whom she christens Pink — as her closest companion. Pink, in turn, watches over her obsessively, and sometimes with a little too much zeal.

So it happens that when Suraya befriends the new girl in school, Jing Wei, Pink reacts jealously and to the detriment of both girls. Things come to a head, eventually leading Suraya to divulge to her mother what’s been going on at which point her mother enlists the help of a pawang hantu, Encik Ali. But to their horror, Suraya and Jing Wei discover he has sinister designs for Pink. They take it upon themselves to help Pink return to where he came from so as to escape the clutches of Encik Ali. The two embark on an urgent mission where danger lurks at every turn and they find unexpected allies of the supernatural kind coming to their aid — a bit reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book.

Hanna has crafted a story with verve, emotion, and empathy in The Girl and the Ghost, and reading it gave me all the feels. Be forewarned, however, that if you have a particularly sensitive child, the story gets pretty dark and gruesome in the final confrontation with the pawang. There’s a lot to unpack in the novel, as it examines heavy themes such as the harm of holding on to something even when it’s time to let go, the way jealousy poisons relationships, and how the avoidance of difficult or painful parts of our lives just makes things worse in the long run.

But there’s a lot of light as well. The precious gift of friendship is a key thread that runs through the novel. Jing Wei is the very portrait of a true friend, a Samwise Gamgee-type to Suraya’s Frodo Baggins who jumps with both feet in, come what may. There is also the tenacity of hope, bravery in the face of fear, and love in action.

Suraya as a character is bookish, kind and non-confrontational. She is the very definition of a good girl, “one who does as she’s told… who doesn’t like to make trouble for other people”, taunts the pawang at one point. But as it becomes clear, it isn’t that she’s afraid to fight, but that she’s one who chooses her battles — when it comes down to it, she will face demons to protect someone she loves.  

The Girl and the Ghost is a good book. And as Auden informs us, no, it is not just for children.

Verdict: 8/10

Availability: Paperback, RM49.90. Purchase here.

Special thanks to HaperCollins for an eARC of the book.

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Lit Review: ‘A Sprinkle of Sorcery’ by Michelle Harrison

by Elaine Lau

I picked up Michelle Harrison’s newly published middle-grade novel, A Sprinkle of Sorcery, with keen anticipation. The book is a follow-up to the absolutely delightful first novel in the series, A Pinch of Magic, which I enjoyed immensely and could not stop recommending to young readers at Lit Books.

In A Pinch of Magic, we are introduced to the three Widdershins sisters — there is the eldest and sensible one, Fliss; the feisty and adventurous Betty; and the youngest, Charlie, who’s sassy and fearless. The sisters live on an island called Crowstone and help their granny run the Poacher’s Pocket inn. They were condemned to never leave the island because of an ancient family curse, and the story revolves around the trio as they set about figuring out how to break this curse with the help of some magical family heirlooms.

A Sprinkle of Sorcery sees the Widdershins embark on a mystery-adventure when a mysterious girl who needs help appears at their doorstep accompanied by a glowing wisp and a magical hagstone. The girl, Willow, had escaped from the nearby island of Torment, where family members of those imprisoned for crimes are sent to.

Willow is adamant to prove her father’s innocence, and the Widdershins decide to help her. But then Charlie goes missing after being snatched away by two men masquerading as warders who were out to capture the escapee. Fliss and Betty are thrown into a perilous mission where they encounter fearsome pirates, a sunken smuggler’s ship, and a magical island that does not seem to exist on any map. It would take all their wits and every ounce of courage to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges to help a complete stranger and find their sister.

Much like the first book in the series, Harrison combines a winning formula of strong girl characters, a suspenseful, pacey plot with a conundrum not too easily solved, and just enough surprises and twists to keep even a slightly jaded adult reader such as myself captivated throughout. Threaded with themes of sisterhood, friendship, and kindness, this rollicking fun read is just as good as the first novel. While it does make mention of some happenings from the first novel, you do not need to have read it in order to enjoy this one — A Sprinkle of Sorcery works as a standalone.

I very much enjoy Harrison’s breezy style of writing and loved that I genuinely did not know how the story was going to unfold — it was thrilling to be taken on this journey of wonder and discovery. Harrison has a knack for imaginative storytelling, even if the individual elements of the story are not at all unfamiliar. In her capable hands, she has woven these various popular tropes into a magical tale that feels wholly original.

Verdict: A thrilling, enchanting story that will delight children and adults alike. (8/10)

Availability: Paperback, RM49.90

Special thanks to Pansing Distribution for a review copy of the book.