‘Human Acts’ by Han Kang

My rating: 3 stars

Suffering is a constant feeling in Human Acts by Han Kang. It is a book about how an uprising in South Korea and the actions of an authoritarian government affected the lives of various people throughout the years. Told from several points of view, it could have been more impactful had it focused on fewer perspectives and intertwined them more closely.

At the beginning of the book, the municipal gymnasium in Gwangju is being used to keep the bodies of the civilians who were killed by the South Korean army during the popular uprising of 1980. The narrator of the first chapter indirectly addresses a character who is looking for his friend’s corpse and, not having been successful in finding it, ends up staying at the gymnasium to help. He was with his friend during the uprising but fled when the army started shooting.

Each chapter has a distinct narrator. The second chapter is told in the first person by the soul of Jeong-dae, who was killed during the uprising. His body and those of many victims were thrown into a pile. He wants to know who killed him and his sister. Five years later, Kim Eun-Sook, an editor at a publishing house, is slapped seven times by a police detective who wants to know the whereabouts of a translator. Through a third-person narration, we learn how she was also affected by the uprising. The first-person narrator of the following chapter is a man who was a prisoner. He was one of the students who was part of the uprising and, in 1990, is recalling what he remembers from that time to a professor. Continue reading

‘Strike Your Heart’ by Amélie Nothomb

My rating: 5 stars

Short books can be as impactful and meaningful as longer ones. Strike Your Heart by the Belgian author Amélie Nothomb is a gripping and insightful story about uncaring, jealous mothers (and oblivious fathers) elegantly told mostly from the perspective of a perceptive daughter in various stages of her life. Although the short chapters make the plot flow fast, the life of Diane, the main character, still makes an indelible impression on readers.

In 1971, Marie, Diane’s mother, was nineteen years old. She was studying to be a secretary, but what gave her great satisfaction was going to tons of parties and catching the attention of young men there, since it made all the other young women jealous. Olivier was one of the young men interested in her. He believed that she was as much in love with him as he was with her. She soon got pregnant and had to give up her studies. They got married in a ceremony that was much simpler than Marie would have liked.

When Diane was born, Marie immediately became jealous of her. Olivier thought that she was depressed and asked his mother-in-law to take care of Diane during the day, while Marie studied to be an accountant. Despite immediately realising that it was a jealousy issue, she was delighted to look after her granddaughter, who was starting to understand that there was something wrong about the way her mother interacted with her. Continue reading

‘Convenience Store Woman’ by Sayaka Murata

My rating: 3 stars

The light-heartedness with which the state of mind and challenges faced by the main character and narrator of Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata are addressed makes this short book an endearing story at first. It explores the pressure to conform to what society deems expected of people, particularly women, in various stages of life. Some of the later occurrences seem too far-fetched, though.

Keiko Furukura, a convenience store worker, grew up in a loving family. But when she was at primary school, she kept getting in trouble because of her way of reacting to things. Once she found a dead bird and, instead of burying it, she wanted to cook it. Another time, in order to stop two children fighting, she hit one of them with a spade. Afterwards, she decided to speak as little as possible to avoid problems.

She started working at the convenience store when she was still at university and has been there since the day it opened. For the first time she felt like part of society. She is now 36 years old and none of her initial colleagues work there anymore. Her parents would love for her to have another job, but she feels that she can only act like a “normal” person when all she has to do is follow the manual she was given during the initial training. She also tries to speak like her colleagues and copies the dressing style of the one that is almost her age. It’s at the convenience store that Keiko feels at home. Continue reading

‘Cada Homem é uma Raça’ (‘Every Man is a Race’) by Mia Couto

My rating: 4 stars

Mia Couto’s writing style has an inventive quality to it, giving the eleven stories in the collection Cada Homem é uma Raça (Every Man is a Race in the translation into English) a curious sonority. Every story focuses on a particular person or group of people. Some of them have their lives changed either by individual actions or by the existing political and social realities.

The first story in the collection, ‘A Rosa Caramela’, is narrated by a young man from a village. He is not the main character, though. That is Rosa Caramela’s role. When she was younger, Rosa was left by a man whom she thought was going to marry her. Afterwards, she started behaving strangely and admiring a statue of a former coloniser. More than her inner feelings, the story is about how other people perceived her. The characteristic rhythm and sonority of the Portuguese from Mozambique immediately takes those reading it in the original on a journey there.

It’s not only the sound of the sentences that is distinctive, however. Mia Couto creates new words by turning everyday nouns and adjectives into verbs. This happens in almost all of the stories, but it is very pronounced and successful in ‘Rosalinda, a Nenhuma’, which is about how a woman dealt with the death of her unfaithful husband. In ‘O Ex-futuro Padre e sua Pré-viúva’, the author coined new words by mixing two together, which is slightly grating at times. This is the story of how a man who wanted to become a priest ends up marrying a woman, because she is believed to be pregnant. Continue reading

‘Passing’ by Nella Larsen

My rating: 4 stars

Racism, identity and marriage play a crucial role in Passing by Nella Larsen. Through the story of two women of African-American origin in the 1920s, it portrays the rife racism present in society and delves into how it is possible to live a lie for a long time, while feeling the need to escape it.

It’s a warm August and Irene Redfield is back in her hometown, Chicago, for a visit. To refresh herself, she decides to drink tea at the roof of the Drayton Hotel. She soon starts to feel uncomfortable, though, as a woman at a table near her can’t stop looking in her direction. The woman, Clare Kendry, ends up asking her if she doesn’t remember her. They used to be friends when they were younger but haven’t seen each other for twelve years, because Clare went to live with her aunts after the death of her father. She is now married and has been passing as white.

Clare manages to convince Irene to go to her place one afternoon. There she realises that Clare’s husband is not aware of her African-American origin, believing that he has married a white woman. In fact, he hates black people. Continue reading

‘Geografia’ by Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen

My rating: 4 stars

Poems don’t necessarily ask for the creation of a sense of place. In Geografia by the Portuguese author Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen, a significant number of poems, which are organised in sections, focus on particular locations, though. Others, on the other hand, are dedicated to fellow poets, to the writing of poetry and to social issues.

The beaches in Algarve were the source of inspiration for the first group of poems in the collection. The one that stands out the most is ‘Senhora da Rocha’. It can be read as a personification of a place, since it could either be about the beach itself or a woman who doesn’t enjoy her life.

Other locations mentioned in the poems are the Mediterranean and Brazil. Not only are cities in the region of the Mediterranean the main inspiration for various poems, but Sophia also focused on Ancient Gods and myths, such as Elektra and the Minotaur. From the couple of poems about Brazil, the one that caught my interest the most was ‘Poema de Helena Lanari’, which is about the sound of Brazilian Portuguese and its open vowels. There is also a poem about Manuel Bandeira, a Brazilian poet whom she was a fan of in her youth. Continue reading

‘Weight’ by Jeanette Winterson

My rating: 4 stars

Weight by Jeanette Winterson is a slim book. Nevertheless, it encapsulates various narrators, tones and reflections. The Ancient Greek myth of Atlas is used to explore the concept of burden and how it affects various people, including the author herself.

Atlas is the son of Poseidon and Mother Earth. After the war between the gods and the Titans, he was punished to shoulder the Cosmos for eternity. He once received a visit from Heracles, who had a favour to ask. He wanted him to pick some of Hera’s golden apples. During that time, Heracles would take his place as bearer of the universe.

The two men, despite both being descendants of gods, are starkly different. Atlas is most of the times serene, trying to accept his fate without much fuss but not without questions. Heracles, on the other hand, is arrogant. His “bad lad” attitude is hilarious at first, but the more we learn about his behaviour, the more loathsome he becomes. Continue reading

‘Glass Town’ by Isabel Greenberg

My rating: 4 stars

To create the graphic novel Glass Town, Isabel Greenberg drew inspiration from the lives of the Brontë siblings (Charlotte, Anne, Emily and Branwell) and their juvenilia. Although it can certainly be read by those not familiar with their later work, it also features various allusions to the most renowned novels written by the sisters, which are a welcome bonus.

Grief had always been present in the life of the Brontë siblings. Not only had their mother passed away, but they had also lost two siblings. On the bright side, they could read all the books in their father’s library. Plus, they also liked to come up with their own stories.

Once, when their father returned from Leeds, he brought with him a set of toy soldiers. That was the spark that led the siblings to create a new fantasy world. Thanks to the indomitable power of their creativity and the inspiration drawn from various books, Glass Town was born and populated with various characters with a shared story of their own. Continue reading

‘Animal Farm’ by George Orwell

My rating: 4 stars

Fables are never going to feature the most developed of characters. Their main aim is to convey a moral lesson after all. In Animal Farm, George Orwell succeeded in using this genre to criticise the Soviet Union, creating a thought-provoking story that can be relished even by readers who, like me, don’t tend to enjoy anthropomorphised animals in books. And, if the main text’s importance can’t be denied, the first annex featured in the Penguin English Library edition is as, or even more, interesting.

The animals at Manor Farm are exploited by Mr Jones. It is Major, one of the pigs at the English farm, that makes them see that they are forced to work until they have no strength left in appalling conditions. They are not free. Three nights after his rousing speech, Major dies and doesn’t get to witness the rebellion that takes place when the animals go one day unfed. As the animals take over the farm, Mr Jones flees.

Afterwards, two pigs, Snowball and Napoleon, start to lead the other animals. They reduce Animalism, the system of thought based on the principle that freedom and equality are essential rights of animals, to seven commandments and change the name of the farm to Animal Farm. The animals continue to work the land, but this time with much more enthusiasm, since they are doing it for their own prosperity. One day, however, the pigs start to keep the milk and the apples only for themselves, instead of distributing them between all animals. The justification? They are the brainworkers after all. Continue reading

‘The Magic Toyshop’ by Angela Carter

My rating: 4 stars

Originally published in 1967, The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter occasionally reads like a Victorian novel sprinkled with Ancient Greek mythology influences. As the story progresses, it’s impossible not to start drawing comparisons with the work of Charles Dickens. The book features children who became orphans, a haunting wedding dress, a Christmas day that is not as it should be, and people living in meagre conditions. However, it is also a coming-of-age novel that explores the sexual awakening of a young woman.

Fifteen-year-old Melanie is the main character in this novel. She has two younger siblings – Jonathon and Victoria. They are being looked after by their housekeeper, Mrs Rundle, since their parents are away in America. One day a telegram arrives. Their parents have died in an accident. While Jonathon and Victoria don’t seem to realise how their lives are about to change, Melanie feels that her entire world is falling apart. To make matters worse, she believes that there must be a connection between her having worn her mother’s wedding dress and the death of her parents. It haunts her.

Soon they learn that they are to live with their mother’s brother from then on. Uncle Philip, whom Melanie is only aware of thanks to a photo of her parents’ wedding, is a toymaker in London. It’s not him who is waiting for them at the train station, though. Instead, they are picked up by Finn and Francie, who are their aunt’s brothers. Continue reading