There’s an Asian theme to this week’s top picks – perhaps because we’re still in the headspace of getting excited about the shortlist for the Man Asian Literary Prize. They all sound so good, you’ll want to reserve them straight away!
This is a beautifully written debut novel set around the lives of two sisters. Growing up in the American Midwest, the older and more dutiful Janie has borne the lion’s share of the responsibility of looking after the younger, more lovable but manipulative Hannah. These ties are suddenly cut, however, when Hannah inexplicably but purposefully disappears while away at College. Jamie sets out to find her, mindful of her grandmother’s warning that ever since the Japanese invasion of Korea, the family has lost a daughter in every generation. This is not a mystery story; rather it is a story of one family’s survival through the turbulent and cruel years of twentieth century Korea, their adjustment to life in a foreign land, and of their reconciliation with the past and their future.
All the flowers in Shanghai.
Also a debut novel, this is the story of Feng and her life in the turbulent years of mid-20th Century China. Beginning in the 1930s, Feng is a 17-year-old schoolgirl, living a charmed life in Shanghai. Her world is shattered, however, when her older sister, who was engaged, dies. Feng must now take her sister’s place and marry the fiancé, becoming the First Wife of a First Son in a prominent Shanghai business family. Naive and unworldly, Feng struggles to make a place for herself in her husband’s household, where she must deal with a cold and powerful father-in-law and his unpleasant extended family, and produce an heir. In the process, she makes terrible compromises and choices which haunt her all her life. Meanwhile, the world around Feng is changing. The glamour and glitz of her life can’t continue under Communist China, and Feng, grown used to her privileged life, must face the changes forced on her. While critics have hailed this poetic work, readers may struggle to empathise with Feng and her shifts in morality and personality that she makes to secure her place in her world.
The orphan master’s son : a novel / Adam Johnson.
In his novel, Adam Johnson explores if it is possible to maintain a sense of self and humanity in the deeply conformist, controlling and terrifying world that is North Korea. Pak Jun Do lives with his blind father in a North Korean camp for orphans. Orphans are routinely assigned to the most unpleasant and dangerous work and Jun Do is assigned to be a tunnel soldier, trained to fight in complete darkness in the tunnels underneath the DMZ. He is then reassigned as a kidnapper, snatching Japanese citizens who have particular skills which are needed in North Korea. Failure in any mission will result in being sent to the prison mines. The author does not spare the reader in portraying the truly, unimaginably, dreadful world of everyday life in North Korea. But in the midst of this awfulness, Jun Do falls in love, and in a clever and unexpected way, manages to propel himself into being able to take his fate into his own hands. This novel, part-adventure, part-thriller, part-romance, is compelling, “a masterpiece” says author David Mitchell (The thousand autumns of Jacob De Zoet).