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.
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.”
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.
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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.