Reading East Asia

Dodging the usual Japanese heavyweights (well, mostly) in favour of more esoteric cuts, here are our favourite reads from this most rich of literary areas.

Human Acts by Han Kang

Han Kang rose to prominence in the English-speaking world when The Vegetarian won the Man Booker International Prize. Whether you’ve read The Vegetarian or not (you should!), her other novels are just as brilliant and well worth your time. Human Acts follows characters connected by the aftermath of the Gwangju Uprising in 1980s South Korea. While it’d be a lie to say this isn’t at times a harrowing read, it’s also an ethereal, beautiful, measured argument for the existence of the soul and humanity’s possibility for redemption.

The Stolen Bicycle, by Wu Ming Yi

The Stolen Bicycle has everything you never knew you wanted in a novel — a potted family tree by way of their stolen bicycles, Taiwan in the Second World War, a zoo that houses the world’s oldest elephant. Yet Wu Ming-Yi brings all these threads together in a way that feels totally seamless. This shouldn’t matter as much, but there’s also some terrific diagrams of different Taiwanese bike models dotted all the way through.

Tower, by Bae Myung-Hoon

Beyond the absolutely exquisite cover, Tower ticks all the boxes. It’s a collection of interconnected science fiction short stories, translated from Korean, all set in the fictional sovereign nation of Beanstalk, a 700-storey mega-skyscraper. It is slapstick, and farcical, and really funny but comes with a good dollop of political commentary. Most of all, Tower strikes that perfect balance that every good collection should: each story stands on its own two legs as a coherent, complete story, while the book as a whole has a narrative strand running through it that makes it read more like a novel. Perfecto!

Where the Wild Ladies Are, by Aoko Matsuda

Witty and melancholy in equal measure, this is a collection of interlinked short stories loosely based around traditional Japanese folktales with a contemporary, feminist twist. A few of the stories begin with a light touch of context, which is exactly the right amount of handholding: you don’t have to have read any Japanese folktales to enjoy this. These are damn good ghost stories in-and-of themselves. If anything, it just makes you want to come back for more.

Winter In Sokcho, by Elisa Shua Dusapin

Anyone who has endured a winter in a town that relies on summer tourism will feel an acute affinity for this wonderful and curious little novel from French-Korean writer Dusapin. We join a directionless guesthouse worker in a North Korean border town by the sea as she shares a beautifully awkward new relationship (if you can call it that) with a visiting French cartoonist. And if you’re a fan of vivid writing about fish, this one’s for you.

Strange Beasts Of China, by Yan Ge

A deliciously and unconventional detective drama that plays out in a fictional city populated in part by the richly described beasts of the title. Each chapter relays the sad history of a different breed of beast, all while the tension in our cryptozoologist hero’s personal story threatens to topple her attempts to catalogue their behaviour.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is both a grand, beautifully realised epic, and an affecting personal tale of one woman’s journey to self-discovery. Thien covers thousands of miles and generations of family history while maintaining a tight focus on a handful of poets, musicians, lovers and revolutionaries–and she almost makes it seem easy!

Diary Of A Mad Old Man, by Junichiro Tanizaki

Tanizaki works incredibly hard to make an at-times reprehensible main character palatable, maybe even loveable, in this troubling and exquisitely strange novel. It is literally a diary of a mad old man, Utsugi, who tells us his most intimate secrets while generally upsetting his family in creatively unpleasant ways, and embarks upon a ill-advised pursuit of his strong-willed and wily daughter-in-law.

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