Khanh Ha’s Flesh (2012)

From the title, readers might guess that Khanh Ha’s first novel, Flesh, will be of a visceral nature.

And from the cover image, with a young woman’s neck and shoulders and long braid disappearing into wafts of smoke, readers will suspect a romantic tale.

Once they learn that it takes place in turn-of-the-century Vietnam (then called Tonkin), they might even think of Marguerite Duras’ The Lover.

Black Heron Press, 2012

Indeed, the story is a sensual one, and the love affair in Flesh, too, is carried on in private, but these images have another, darker side.

Red is not only associated with romance, but with blood. The woman is turned away.  Only the head of the man is visible, and his eyes could be closed in ecstasy or in death.

A coffin that leaks blood, ants and flies feasting on the fluid and remnants of the trail. A rotting eel, a decapitated mongrel, the drone of insects.

The prose of Khanh Ha’s debut is laden with sensory details that pull readers into multi-dimensional scenes.

Readers need not worry if they have little familiarity with the political and geographical setting; Khanh Ha brings the world alive for readers with details that speak to the human experience in Flesh.

River waves “glinted like fish scales”. There is a “purr of mucus” when Chim clears his throat. A small fire glows and “twigs crackled and I smelled sap in the thin smoke”. A man crouches like a “self-absorbed toad”. A face is like a “wrinkled piece of elephant hide”.

Readers will be immediately comfortable in the story, in terms of recognition and relationship.

However, they will be immediately uncomfortable, with an intensely violent scene in the opening pages and a pervasive sense of predatory power throughout the narrative.

Threats lurk. Two green dots in the bushes? A tiger waiting for the fire to die down.

Questions are debated. Does a blade’s colour change colour after it has been used to kill a man?

Bones without flesh. Bones and flesh putrifying in damp clay-soaked ground. Equally disturbing.

And, yet, readers quickly become attached to sixteen-year-old Tài, whose family has suddenly been reduced to two members, due to violence and to illness.

By page 50, readers have recognized that his young boy is a survivor, with a desire to understand aspects of his family history which have left him devastated and furious, determined and curious.

His mother remains anxious about her son. “Tài, don’t be so naïve. You’ll get yourself in trouble if you think people are that sympathetic. No one ever gives you anything for free. You must earn it.”

Tài doesn’t think he’s naïve, however; he is simply desperate. He’ll try anything, and sometimes it doesn’t work out.

“To me, it’s not a crime, sir,” I said. “The situation might make it look like a crime.”

Khanh Ha, Author

The question of crime, and the overarching concern of justice, is a vitally important part of this story. From the opening pages, in which readers discover that Tài’s father has been sentenced to death, it’s clear that matters of honour and mercy will follow.

“My father may have been a criminal, but he was a well-liked criminal.”

Also early in the novel, the question of fate and free-will is raised. It’s clear that Tài’s father was acting in response to other events, some local and some national/colonial, and it’s difficult to pinpoint which actions were rooted in choice and which were directed by forces stronger than a single man.

“There is always a chance in this world.” “But chance in turn depends on other things. Doesn’t it always?”

The themes of this work are sweeping and although only a couple of years pass, there are life-changing events which unfold, for both major and minor characters, in a historical context which will be unfamiliar to many Western readers, and which naturally envelops the characters in the novel.

Tài begins by crediting chance with more influence, and perhaps this is what his mother saw as naïvete, but as the plot develops, the “other things”, those upon which chance depends, are exposed. (There is an element of tension which develops around this, but the novel is more about character than a page-turning plot.)

Much of this takes place in dialogue, which keeps the novel’s pace steady. These passages and exchanges are sometimes a little wordy and other times surprisingly informal and, yet, everyday speech is inconsistent that way, too. In a story with its fair share of death and decay, readers will appreciate the fact that narrative segments are punctuated with dialogue, even if it is neither wholly polished nor organic.

The outstanding element of this novel is the solid invitation extended to readers, to enter this world which Khanh Ha has created in Flesh.

Perhaps it is an expanse of land, with tiny yellow dots, which are flocks of canaries raised by shepherds, where the pale green rice fields soothe the eyes.

Perhaps it is the Chinese quarter in Hanoi, with the smoke from oil lamps, the smells of hot fat and cooked cabbage, radish, ginseng, and a whiff of opium, a caramel odor that Tài recognizes immediately.

Perhaps it is an ugly world. The recurring motif of a headless body — which might be a rooster, a rat, a dog, a father — is haunting.

But if readers believe in Tài’s character, they will not look away; he has had to accept these horrors, and still recognizes the wonder and beauty that exist alongside, and readers who are immersed in Flesh will do the same.

Looking for other opinions or information?

The author’s photograph, above, links to his website.

The trailer there has a variety of images which are intriguing, whether you’ve already read the book or are still deciding whether it’s to your reading taste. There is also a brief excerpt from the novel’s opening pages.

You can also check other readers’ opinions here:

Olduvai ReadsSavvy Verse & WitThe Year in Books;
Drey’s LibraryMan of La Booklibbysbookblog;
Book Reviews by Elizabeth A. WhiteMary’s Cup of Tea;
A Novel SourceBook Dilettante

 

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2014-03-17T15:28:31+00:00

8 Comments

  1. Buried In Print July 24, 2012 at 10:29 pm - Reply

    Thanks, Heather. That’s true, a lot of contrasts. But, then, that’s true of life, and it doesn’t feel like you’re careening from one to the next, it feels all-of-a-piece.

  2. Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours July 20, 2012 at 11:53 am - Reply

    You make an interesting point about being both comfortable and uncomfortable while reading this book. It certainly seems to have a great deal of contrasts.

    Thank for being on the tour.

  3. Buried In Print July 18, 2012 at 12:12 pm - Reply

    Thanks, Zibilee, Kailana and Vasilly. I think each of you would enjoy the sense of being immersed in the world of this novel, and I think you would love the love story that emerges.

  4. Vasilly July 18, 2012 at 12:01 am - Reply

    My goodness! What a review. Now I want to read this.

  5. Kailana July 17, 2012 at 10:40 am - Reply

    You make this book sound really good! Great review!

  6. zibilee July 17, 2012 at 10:09 am - Reply

    Oh wow, this does sound like an extremely visceral and deeply haunting read, and one that I might like to try. I can’t deny that the cover image is indeed striking, and the way you’ve described the story really gets my attention as well. Great review today. I definitely need to read this one when I can. Thanks for sharing it!

  7. Khanh Ha July 16, 2012 at 9:08 pm - Reply

    Thank you, BIP, for giving me – and readers – the palpable joy in your review of Flesh. You do have a way with words, and I admire that. You also give reading book reviews a fresh breeze rather an a draft of hot air, and I’m sure readers will enjoy it in snapshots of descriptions that you show them, just like a Hemingway’s short story, light and easy and echoing. Any writer will fret about reading reviews of his work, the way the riverbank slowly frets away under pounding by the wind and rain. Yet an insightful, albeit critical review is always welcome.

    • Buried In Print July 18, 2012 at 12:10 pm - Reply

      Even your comment gives readers here a glimpse of the way that you use language; I’m glad that my thoughts on your work suit you, and I do hope it finds a match with many other readers. I plan to post my thoughts on a couple of other sites too, to spread the word about your debut, and I look forward to your next work.

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