Tag Archives: Historical Fiction

Virgins

Novella prequel to the “Outlander” series

Content warning: sexual assault, sex work

After having no positive COVID-19 cases in my city for over 3 months, I have accepted that I really have no excuse for not returning to the gym. It has been a bit surreal, to be honest. I’m santitising all the equipment before and after use, and I’m jogging to and from the gym to reduce my time in the space. However, it has been really good to be able to increase how much time I’m listening to audiobooks for (though I have to say, I seem to have a neverending amount of mowing to do). After my last audiobook, I thought I would try something a bit shorter this time. While I have mentioned her books previously, I actually haven’t reviewed any of this author’s books on my blog before. This is wild to me because I am a huge fan of the TV adaptation of this series and watch it religiously every season, and have been reading these books since I was a teen. The most recent book was published in 2014, and the author has been busily working on the 9th book of the series since then. I had this on my Audible wishlist and it was blessedly short, and kept me busy for two gym sessions and a run.

Virgins cover art

“Virgins” by Diana Gabaldon is a historical fiction novella and prequel to her “Outlander” series set in France in the 1700s. Two young Scots, Jamie and Ian, are reunited when Jamie joins a band of mercenaries in rural France. Jamie, beset with physical and emotional wounds following an incident with the English back in Scotland, takes a while to open up to his best friend about what really happened. Meanwhile, a simple job to escort a priceless treasure and a young woman safely to Paris soon goes awry.

This is a quick novella that shares a brief insight into the life of Jamie Fraser before he meets Claire in the main series. Although Jamie is traumatised, badly injured, over-confident and very naive, we see glimmers of the man that he will become later in the series. Jamie and Ian’s friendship is a given in the “Outlander” series, so it was interesting to see a little more of the interplay between the two and to see Jamie occasionally being less than generous with his best friend, bragging about his superior education. A large part of the plot centres on a femme fatale archetype which was titillating if not surprising.

I think if you haven’t read any of the other books in the series, I probably wouldn’t recommend you start with this one. While there are no spoilers, there are a lot of nods to character development and history that I think would make a lot more sense to a reader with more context. “Dragonfly in Amber” is largely set in France, and I think it makes for interesting reading to reflect on Jamie’s first experiences there knowing what happened later on than vice versa. There was a graphic sexual assault scene in this book that was pretty confronting as I was jogging along to the gym alone in the evening, and while I think that the scene was certainly historically plausible and Gabaldon does revisit the incident later in the book to mete out some justice, it was pretty shocking hearing the assault being rationalised due to the victims occupation as a sex worker.

This is a quick, easy book to read (or listen to) and I think my suspicions that I need audiobooks to be quick and easy have been proved once again. A good choice for an “Outlander” fan looking for something to tide them over until the next book and season.

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A Dance with Fate

Historical Celtic fantasy novel 

Content warning: family violence, disability

This is the second novel in this series, so if you haven’t read the first novel yet I’d recommend checking out my review here first. I was so excited to see the second book come out so soon after the first and rushed to buy it.

“A Dance with Fate” by Juliet Marillier is the second book in the historical fantasy series “The Warrior Bards” that picks up shortly after the events of the first book. Former rivals Liobhan and Dau have become comrades after their challenging undercover mission, but are still eager to compete for recognition as warriors on Swan Island. However, when the evenly matched pair spar together in a display bout, an accident and a head injury causes Dau to lose his vision. Word is sent to his estranged family who demand payment, and Liobhan accompanies Dau to his home at a grim place called Oakhill. Despite his disability, Dau is no longer the frightened boy his brothers tormented and he must face his old demons if he and Liobhan are to uncover the truth of what has been happening at Oakhill. Meanwhile, Liobhan’s brother Brocc struggles to adjust to his new life in the Otherworld. The Crow Folk who so threatened the Fair Folk have begun turning up horrifically maimed and his wife and queen Eirne has grown distant. A journey to save a friend’s life brings him more than he bargained for.

My girl Pepper also wanted to get involved in being a book model

While I often find myself struggling with sequels in fantasy series, Marillier has the singular skill of making her sequels even better than the first book and this is no exception. This is a captivating and challenging tale about power and justice. Despite all his character growth in the previous book, and adjusting to his newfound confidence, Dau finds himself in a position of extreme vulnerability back in his family home where he was subjected to extreme and repeated abuse by his brothers. Marillier often writes about disability, and in this case again writes sensitively and compellingly about Dau’s grief at losing his vision, the adjustments the characters make to assist him and his gradual acceptance of his new circumstances. I also love the way that Marillier writes romance and how gentle and full of equal parts trust and passion relationships emerge.

But Tabasco is the one who matches Liobhan’s hair the best

One theme that shone through this book was the healing power of dogs. One of Dau’s childhood traumas involves his dog Snow, and the lies his brothers told about what really happened weigh heavily on Dau. However, through the dogs we meet in this book, we learn how deeply Dau cares for animals and how much they bring joy and meaning to his life, even when he is at his darkest. My own dog Pepper has been attacked several times by dogs, something that I know Juliet Marillier has also experienced, yet the generosity with which she writes about dogs in this book – especially dogs with poor training and unkind treatment – is honestly heartwarming. Where we were struck by the tragedy of what happened to Snow in the previous book, this book feels like a reconciliation for both Dau and reader.

In the previous book, I did find Brocc’s story a little less engaging, but in this book I was absolutely hooked. Marillier fleshes out the Otherworld and Brocc’s relationship with Eirne. I felt that Brocc underwent a lot of character development in this book, coming to terms with his own mixed ancestry, navigating honesty and expectations with his new wife, and trying to decide his own morals in relation to the Crow Folk. The Otherworld characters, old and new, were very interesting and I simply adored True.

This book had me in tears more than once and I cannot wait for the next installment.

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The Buru Quartet (Tetralogi Buru)

Content warning: colonialism, racism

This series was given to me as a 21st birthday present by some family friends, and I must admit that was a very long time ago. They were no longer banned in Indonesia, and although I was nevertheless a little nervous about it, I decided to take them with me when I studied in Java for a year. I definitely finished the first book and had at the very least begun the second, but while I was over there, my third book went missing. It took some time of scouring op shops and the Lifeline Book Fair before I finally found another copy in this set. It’s a beautiful set, and it’s been gathering dust on my shelf far too long. Some relevance to research I’ve been doing recently and the Year of the Asian Reading Challenge finally encouraged me to give this series another go. I also found out that last year the first book was adapted into a really great and well-cast film which is currently on Netflix.

“The Buru Quartet” by Pramoedya Ananta Toer and translated from Bahasa Indonesia by Max Lane is a series of four historical novels called “This Earth of Mankind” (Manusia Bumi), “Child of All Nations” (Anak Semua Bangsa), “Footsteps” (Jejak Langkah) and “House of Glass” (Rumah Kaca). The series is largely about Minke, a young Native Javanese man of significant family standing who, at the end of the 19th century, is permitted to study at the HBS – a secondary school typically reserved for students of Dutch or Eurasian (Indo) heritage. One day, an Indo classmate invites him to visit another Indo friend at his family’s home. Despite being on of the most educated Natives in Java, Minke is struck by the impressive Nyai Ontosoroh, a Javanese woman who is both concubine to a Dutch man and single-handedly managing his estate and business without ever having been formally educated. Minke is also struck by Nyai’s beautiful Indo daughter Anneleis. Growing close to this unusual family sets Minke on a new path of enlightenment and understanding about the true nature of colonialism. Already a published writer, Minke begins to write about his observations of inequality under colonial rule. When he experiences an unthinkable tragedy, he focuses his attention on how to wake a sleepy Java and navigate the subtleties of class and culture to bring a national awareness to his readers.

I cannot stress enough how excellent this series is. In it’s own right, it is a masterpiece of historical fiction combining meticulous research, characterisation (my absolute favourite character was Darsam the bodyguard) and political insight. However, I cannot write about this series without mentioning the circumstances around how it came to be published. Not unlike the historical figure Tirto Adhi Soerjo upon which his books are based upon, Toer was imprisoned under the Suharto regime and forbidden from having any writing materials on an island called Buru which became the novels’ namesake. Toer, who had spent many years researching this story before his personal library was burned, recited the story of Minke to his fellow prisoners and was eventually able to write it down. After release, Toer published his books himself where they were subsequently banned for nearly 20 years in Indonesia despite being available to great acclaim around the world. The fact that they exist at all is a veritable miracle and it is a privilege to be able to read them in Lane’s well-considered and nuanced translation.

There are so many things that I could write about these books, but I think that I’ll limit it to two key things: it’s brilliance as a piece of historical fiction, and how well it has stood up to the test of time. If this is the result of a narrated story after a library’s worth of research was destroyed, I cannot fathom what this book would have been like had Toer not gone through so much hardship in writing it. The book is crammed full of cultural references from the Dutch East Indies at the end of the 1800s and early 1900s. Toer refers heavily to literature, art and music of the times, Native and European alike, bringing the story alive with context and colour. Toer helps the reader to understand the extremely complicated social hierarchies made up of traditional Javanese feudalism, white supremacy imported by the Dutch, emerging roles for educated and elite Javanese within the colonial bureaucracy and the uncertain position of Indos and Chinese people. Language is extremely political, and Toer introduces the reader to the concept of Malay as an egalitarian language through Minke’s initial internalised prejudices about Dutch and reluctance to write in his native Javanese. I was fascinated by the way in which Toer leads Minke to nationalistic ideas by referring to news of political movements in the Philippines and China through conversations with Dutch friends because news in the Indies was so suppressed by the colonial regime. Lane did an admirable job of capturing this nuance and providing informative yet unobtrusive notes, commentary and a dictionary in each book to help readers to understand some of this cultural context.

I think one of the most delightful and surprising things about this series is its progressiveness given it was published in the 1980s. Toer is without a doubt a feminist and the women in his books are fierce, intelligent and determined. A cornerstone of these novels is the lack of rights over children and property under Dutch colonial law that nyai have as compared with their Dutch masters. Minke is a lover of women and throughout the novels has a number of wives and lovers of all ethnicities. Each is adroit, beautiful, capable and brave and unlike his compatriots, Minke refuses to have more than one wife at a time. However, it is the issue of racism that is at the heart of this book. Minke, whose nickname is itself a distortion of a racial slur, observes racial inequality in the home, in the street and in the courts. His own education is limited by both his race and the availability of further education in the Indies and his only option is a medical school though his heart lies in writing. He observes stolen land, debt bondage and Javanese women traded to Dutch men for position and money. He observes the hierarchical nature of traditional Javanese society and how that hierarchy was exploited by the Dutch to place themselves firmly at the top. He observes how the riches of the Indies are extracted and exported with no financial benefit to his people. Eventually, Minke’s observations begin to be published and people begin to listen.

There is so much more I could write about this series, including the emergence of organisations, Toer’s handling of mental illness and the troubled policeman Pangemanann. However, I’ll stop here and just say that there is only one thing I regret about reading it which is that I didn’t read it sooner. I hope one day I can read it again in Bahasa Indonesia.

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Beloved

Historical fiction about a mother’s trauma in the wake of slavery

Content warning: slavery, racism, infanticide

Last year, the renowned author Toni Morrison sadly died. She was the recipient of countless awards for her work including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 (a display of which I was able to see when I visited the Nobel Prize Museum last year).

I have only read one of Morrison’s novels, “The Bluest Eye” and I had been debating for a while which of her books I would read next. I found out that many of her novels are available as audiobooks narrated by Morrison herself, and despite this year being a bit shaky for my gym/audiobook routine, I had been doing a bit of running and lawnmowing in lieu of the gym, and decided that I would listen to this one next.

Beloved cover art

“Beloved” by written and narrated by Toni Morrison is a historical fiction novel set in Ohio, USA just after the American Civil War. Sethe, an African American woman and former slave, lives in a haunted house with her 18 year old daughter Denver. The presence in the house is furious, chasing off Sethe’s two sons, and the mother and daughter live an isolated life together. However when Paul D, another former slave from the plantation Sethe escaped, arrives, he challenges the spirit and encourages Sethe and Denver to leave the house. He takes them to a fair, but when they return, they find a girl waiting at the doorstep. The girl, who calls herself Beloved, Sethe believes is her daughter who was killed as a baby.

This is a complex, subtle novel narrated beautifully by Morrison herself. She has a soft, breathy yet expressive voice with each sentence punctuated for excellent dramatic effect and the characters each brought to life. Sethe is a particularly interest character who, up until this point, appears to have been operating on two parallel levels. When Beloved manifests at the house at 124, and Paul D arrives with his questions and memories of the plantation, the two layers of Sethe’s psyche are unable to continue to exist separately. Denver, also initially drawn to Beloved, is the perfect lens through which to observe the changes in Sethe as a result of Beloved’s arrival and goes through significant character development herself. This book is a critical exploration of the multifaceted traumas caused by slavery, and the interplay between memory and identity.

I will admit that despite Morrison’s beautiful narration, this wasn’t a great book for me to listen to as an audiobook. I do have some difficulties with listening comprehension sometimes, and I think the subtlety and the cleverness of this book meant that each time I started daydreaming, I missed a critical part of the book. However, it was captivating enough that I think I would like to reread it in text so if I do, I will come back and update this review.

An excellent and provocative piece of fiction that I would very much like to revisit.

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Stone Sky Gold Mountain

Historical fiction about Chinese siblings during the Queensland gold rush

Content warning: racism, mental illness, sex work

When I heard this book was coming out, I was really excited. I absolutely loved the author’s first book “The Fish Girl” and was really looking forward to this release. Unfortunately, this book came out around the same time as the pandemic starting which meant that lots of authors missed out on the usual author events and publicity that accompany a new release. However, one advantage of everyone going remote is that I didn’t have to worry about travelling for an event, I was able to sign up and livestream. The cover is really pretty – my photo doesn’t quite do it justice but it has little flecks of gold foil in the lettering.

“Stone Sky Gold Mountain” by Mirandi Riwoe is a historical fiction novel about two siblings, Ying and Lai Yue, who have travelled from China to Far North Queensland to seek their fortune on the gold fields. Older brother Lai Yue takes responsibility for saving the little gold they find, purchasing supplies and making decisions. However, when Ying, disguised as a boy, begins to weaken from the hard labour and lack of food, the siblings eventually must move to Maytown to seek more stable employment. With Ying settled in as a shop assistant, Lai Yue takes a job with a team of men headed for a sheep station and the siblings must each make their own way in this strange and hostile country.

This was a fantastic book. Riwoe is a phenomenal writer and in a full-length novel really stretches her muscles to bring to life an era from somewhere that is now nothing more than a ghost town. Ying is a curious, resourceful and flexible character who quickly adapts to her role as shop boy. Enjoying the freedom that a male disguise buys her, she pushes boundaries and befriends a white woman called Meriem – another point of view character. I really found myself cheering Ying on and enjoying her delight in the world and her adventurous spirit playing different roles. Meriem is a complex character who has run from her past to work as a housekeeper for a sex worker. Riwoe does an exceptional job of examining Meriem’s initial prejudices against Chinese people and sensitively handles the stigma and allure of sex work in the Maytown community.

However, I think the real masterpiece of this book is Lai Yue. Laden with the responsibility as the older brother, Lai Yue buckles under the weight. I was initially reminded of the older brother Seita in the film “Grave of the Fireflies“, with Lai Yue initially hoarding the gold they find away instead of using it to buy food Ying so desperately needs. However, as the book progresses, we learn that there is a lot more going on with Lai Yue. Riwoe’s exploration of how mental illness and self-esteem are intertwined is heartbreaking, and initial frustration with Lai Yue quickly makes way to empathy. Riwoe also doesn’t shy away from the many types of racism experienced during this period of history. Unflinchingly, she depicts Chinese people participating in brutal acts of violence against Aboriginal people while back in town, Chinese people themselves are victims of racist attacks and discrimination. At a time when people of Asian heritage are increasingly experiencing racism, it is an important and timely reminder that racism is a part of our history and that we can and must do better.

This is a rich, touching novel and I honestly could continue to wax lyrical about it but instead I very much recommend you read for yourself this critical and necessary contribution to Australian historical fiction.

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The Philosopher’s Daughters

Historical fiction about two English sisters drawn to the outback

Content warning: racism, colonialism, sexual assault

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author. I previously reviewed one of her books which I quite enjoyed, so I was looking forward to seeing her work in another genre.

“The Philosopher’s Daughters” by Alison Booth is a historical fiction novel about two sisters, Harriet and Sarah, who are brought up by their father in London in the late 1800s. Musical Sarah accompanies her father to a meeting about women’s suffrage where she meets Henry, a friend of a friend, who has returned from working in New South Wales. When they marry and move overseas to the colony on an extended honeymoon, artistic Harriet remains to assist their father with his work. However, when the unthinkable happens, Harriet finds herself adrift, she decides to join her sister and see if she can capture the light Sarah keeps writing about on canvas.

This is a gentle, flowing novel that carries the reader from a relatively privileged, intellectual life in London to a rather idyllic, if physically demanding, experience in the Northern Territory. Despite being raised in the same household, Sarah and Harriet have quite different takes on women’s empowerment and Booth uses the sisters to examine how there is no one correct way to practise feminism. While Harriet is practical and a fierce advocate in her own right, it is Sarah who finds adjusting to horse riding, hot weather and even wielding a revolver. However, although independent and forthright, the sisters are not invincible and I thought that Booth was convincing and sensitive in the way that she handled the aftermath of a sexual assault.

I enjoyed Booth’s use of art and music to help forge connections between the characters, and how the change in lifestyle, climate and landscape necessitates flexibility in new instruments and artistic styles. Booth also does not shy away from examining some of the violent and racist practices and policies of the colonies, tackling issues from forcing Aboriginal sportsmen to play cricket with sticks all the way to massacres. Stockman Mick was an interesting character whose education and experience set him apart from the other Aboriginal characters in the book, and through Mick, Booth explores questions of legal identity, stereotypes and even stigma around interracial relationships.

I think a lot of white Australians, who did not learn about the realities of the Terra Nullius myth, the Frontier Wars and the Stolen Generation until recently, are currently finding themselves having to grapple with their ancestors’ history and participation in colonialism. This novel is a good example of trying to make sense of what happened and write about early allies to feminism and racial equality in the beginnings of a colonised Australia. This was a really interesting book to read having recently read “Talkin’ Up to the White Woman“, a thesis on Indigenous women and feminism, especially because this book is very concerned with the beginnings of feminism as we know it.

Reading this novel with Moreton-Robinson’s words in my mind, I think there were two things missing from Booth’s book. The first is a critical assessment of Sarah and Harriet’s role as white women perpetuating the subjugation of Aboriginal women, including Bella and Daisy. There is no real explanation in this book of how the two women become housemaids, whether they are paid wages and how their land has been appropriated for white profit. I felt that there was less nuance in Bella and Daisy’s characters than, for example, Mick’s. I think this could have been rectified by the second thing which was missing: consultation with Aboriginal people.

While Booth’s book is very well-researched, using a number of contemporary sources, family history and observations from her own travels around the Northern Territory, one thing conspicuously absent from the acknowledgements section are any Aboriginal academics or writers. There is no shortage of Aboriginal academics, and I think that given what we know about bias, erasure and self-serving lies in colonial texts, it is critical that when we write about Aboriginal people, we include Aboriginal perspectives.

Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable, easy read that will appeal to historical fiction buffs.

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The Bird King

Historical fantasy novel about the fall of the Emirate of Granada

This was the the latest set book for my fantasy book club, and I did attend this time (albeit with lots of typing out my thoughts on my phone). I had not heard of this book before but the premise was interesting, and I did manage to finish most of it before the book club.

“The Bird King” by G. Willow Wilson is a historical fantasy novel set just before the downfall of the Emirate of Granada. The book is about Fatima, a slave and concubine to the last sultan for whom the palace is a gilded cage. Although well-fed and well-cared for compared to the rest of the declining nation, the walls of the palace chafe against Fatima and it is only in her friend Hassan, a mapmaker, that she finds solace. However, Hassan’s ability to make imagined places reality with his maps draws the attention of representatives from the new Spanish monarchy. When his life is placed in danger, he and Fatima flee the palace. With nothing but themselves, a jinn and faith in half a story about an island ruled by the Bird King, Fatima and Hassan must outrun the Spanish Inquisition.

This book started out really strong with a very unique premise. Fatima is a compelling character who, despite her official status as a court slave and concubine, is very smart, spirited and doted upon by the sultan and his mother. However, despite her relatively luxurious lifestyle, there are constant small reminders of her true position in the palace – including that her relationship with the sultan is only ever on his terms. I really liked the way that Wilson posed two possible lives for Fatima: a life of certainty and comfort, possibly as the mother of a sultan’s sons, but a life never truly her own; and a life of uncertainty but with the freedom to live and die on her own terms.

I also really liked the relationship between Fatima and Lady Aisha, and the complexities, parallels and empathy between the two. Vikram the jinn was another great character who slowly revealed himself to become one of Fatima’s greatest allies. Hassan’s ability to recreate reality through his maps was such an interesting and original magical ability and Wilson really explored it well throughout the book.

However, I felt like the second half of the book started to unravel a bit compared to how compelling the first half was. Although the antagonist Luz was a deeply ominous presence early in the novel, I felt like (without giving too much away) her character’s arc was a little confusing and ultimately a little convenient. I didn’t think the sailor-cum-monk Gwennec added a lot to the story either, and was one of many new characters who were introduced very late into the story and therefore hard to form a connection with. While Fatima and Hassan’s friendship was for the most part incredibly beautifully written, I did feel a bit like it would have been even more powerful had it been strictly platonic on both sides the entire time. The final chapters of the book felt very muddy, and I think perhaps if the final battle was going to be the focus of the book, it would have been better to spend more time getting to know its location than on how they got there in the first place.

A refreshingly original story with a lot of great elements and writing that unfortunately lost a bit of steam towards the end.

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Bells of Prosper Station

Canadian time travel fantasy 

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

Bells of Prosper Station by Gloria Pearson-Vasey

“Bells of Prosper Station” by Gloria Pearson-Vasey is a the first novel in the “Curios Tales from Creekside” series about a nurse practitioner student called Azur who is a Senso: a person with a genetic mutation which makes her sensointuitive. Growing up in a Canadian town called Creekside, every year leading up to Hallowmas, Azur and her sister Hilma would hear the mysterious whistle of a train. However, one year Hilma decided to ride the train back in time and did not return before All Souls’ Day, the last day the train runs until the next Hallowmas. Determined to rescue her sister, Azur decides to ride the train. However, when she arrives in the 19th century town alone, invisible to most and vulnerable to mystical creatures, she must quickly develop her own abilities before it is too late to return.

This is a quick, easy read with a fresh take on the fantasy genre. Pearson-Vasey is a clear, crisp writer who whisks the reader through a well-paced story with plenty of tension. Some of the scenes in the book are simply lovely, and I particularly liked the part where a group meet together at night to draw energy from the moon. The characters were all quite likeable, and Pearson-Valley thought clearly thought very carefully about how to put them to the test in the strange situation they find themselves in.

While I liked the unique premise of the oil industry resulting in some unexpected mutations and abilities, I wasn’t quite sure how that connected to the magic of the train, the time travel and the realm of Vapourlea. As someone very personally connected to the backstory of growing up in Indonesia until the age of 7 with a geophysicist father, I really wanted to know much more about Azur and Hilma’s parents than was hinted at in the book.

An original and engaging story that left me wanting more.

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Pachinko

Historical family saga novel about Japanese occupation of Korea

Content warning: suicide, HIV

I have heard a lot about this book and so when a copy made its way to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation’s Great Book Swap I hosted at work last year (go team Yirrikipayi!), I snaffled it up. This year is the 10 year anniversary of this incredible fundraising event, so make sure you sign up (using appropriate social distancing, of course). This is another book that has waited patiently on my shelf for a while, and ticks the box for two reading challenges I’m doing this year: the Year of the Asian Reading Challenge and #StartOnYourShelfathon.

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“Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee is a historical family saga novel that spans from 1910 to 1989 in what is now known as South Korea and Japan. The book begins with the birth of Hoomie, a stoic, sensible man with two visible disabilities in a south-eastern seaside village in Japanese-occupied Korea. As the story progresses, the focus shifts to his young, pragmatic wife Yangjin and their beloved daughter Sunja. Seduced by an older, wealthy man, when Sunja discovers he is married, she is determined to forget him and raise their child alone. However, when a young Christian minister called Isak boarding at their home offers a solution, she travels with him to Osaka, Japan to start a new life. There, the reader meets Isak’s brother and sister-in-law, and we watch Sunja, her children and her children’s children unfurl in a country that, decades on, looks down on ethnic Koreans.

This book is a very compelling read and particularly in the beginning hooks you in. Lee has done exceptional research and the settings and era are fully realised, particularly through food, clothing and cultural norms. I have never been to Korea (and sadly had to cancel my honeymoon to Japan), but I had a number of Korean friends and classmates when I was in high school. A beautiful and unbelievably sweet Korean friend who only studied with us for a year had a similar facial difference to Hoomie. Lee’s exploration of how stigma associated with visible disability, intellectual disability and mental illness impacts not only the individual concerned, but their parents, children and even grandchildren, especially in relation to marriage prospects, gave me so much more understanding of what my friend must have gone through growing up.

I had another classmate who people used to say was part Japanese, was in gangs and had connections with yakuza. Reading this book really unpacked some of the meaning in this kind of talk for me, and how precarious the position was for Koreans who stayed in Japan after the war and ingrained racism became for these people who were no longer as Korean as the people left behind, but also not Japanese enough to be recognised as citizens. Disadvantage is something that marks Sunja’s family – evolving from poverty to racial discrimination. Even after Sunja’s children and grandchildren manage to claw their way to success, they are still marred by their ethnicity and for some, the knowledge that they will never be Japanese is too heavy a cross to bear.

I think one of the most interesting things about this book is it is only the second book I have ever read about a non-Western nation colonising another. I think these stories are incredibly important because it is a Eurocentric idea that the only examples of colonialism were Western examples, and because these themes of power imbalances, direct discrimination, stereotypes and structural inequality are universal themes that still play out around the world today. The title of this book, pachinko, was absolutely perfect. It references a key industry for several of the characters, but it also captures the struggle of trying everyday to win success in life when so much is left to chance and overnight someone tampers with the machine in such a succinct metaphor.

However, there were a few things about this book that I wasn’t completely supportive of. Lee introduces an ensemble cast, and the story skips from one character to another, highlighting a lot of the various social issues they are exposed to. As is tempting in a book of this magnitude, I think there were times where Lee tried to include too many things. Some of the stories As strong a proponent I am for inclusion, the parts of the book that deal with same-sex attraction felt gratuitous and lacking in the depth accorded to their heterosexual counterparts. I felt that while Lee very convincingly describes the situations her characters found themselves, I would have liked a little more development of the reasons¬†why her characters found themselves there. Lee writes about suicides, and perhaps this is me showing some ignorance about the significance of cultural belonging in Japan, but I felt that the reasons weren’t expounded upon enough.

Anyway, a gripping book about a very important part of history in which it was occasionally a little difficult to see the forest for the proverbial trees.

Image of Castor the Sloth, looking through a telescope. #StartOnYourShelfathon The Quiet Pond.

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Miss Austen

Historical fiction about Jane Austen’s sister

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publicist.

Miss Austen

“Miss Austen” by Gill Hornby is a historical fiction novel about Cassandra Austen, writer Jane Austen’s older sister. In her 60s, Cassandra drops in all but unannounced to the vicarage in Kintbury to visit Miss Isabella, also a spinster, following the death of her father Reverend Fulwar Craven Fowle. Close family friends, Cassandra was once engaged to Fulwar’s brother Tom and her sister Jane was a keen correspondent with Fulwar’s wife Eliza. After Jane’s death and continuing success as a novelist, Cassandra appoints herself the keeper of Jane’s reputation and is determined to make sure that nothing compromising remains.

This is an interesting novel that tackles a great mystery in the history of Jane Austen: why did Cassandra burn so many of her letters after her death? Hornby has chosen a good subject for her novel, and has clearly spent a lot of time researching the Austen family and the places they visited and lived. I felt that Hornby captured the linguistic style of the time well, particularly in the letters, and the idyll of coastal towns and country villages. I actually visited Jane Austen’s house in Chawton last year, and it was a lovely experience visiting some of the other haunts of the Austen family including the range of wealth among the siblings. I think Dinah the maid was one of my favourite characters and her sneakiness and loyalty to Miss Isabella were very enjoyable to read.

Jane Austen’s writing desk at Chawton

I think there were two things that I wasn’t fully on board with. One was the reason why Cassandra seeks out Jane’s letters to scrub them from the official record. Hornby wrote the letters really beautifully, but I think I would have liked a little more artistic license. The contents of the letters is the one unknowable thing, and I felt Hornby could have added a bit more spice, intrigue and controversy and drawn some modern themes into a classic period. The other thing was the rationale behind Cassandra’s spinsterhood, and I would have liked a bit more commitment either to her one true love or her chosen path as dutiful sister.

A relaxing and easy read that tells a little-known story, but that could have used a touch more drama.

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