A young woman goes on a journey of self-discovery in this intimate, understated debut from Chinese author, An Yu.
Jia Jia lives in her Beijing apartment with her husband, Chen Hang, a successful businessman. It's more a marriage of convenience than love, and there are suggestions that not all his business dealings are above board. One morning Jia Jia walks into the bathroom of their apartment to find her husband in the bath, his head submerged. Nearby is a strange, enigmatic drawing he has made of a man with a fish's body, what comes to be called “the fish man”. Was it suicide, or accidental death? Maybe something more sinister?
Left alone in the world with a large, four-bedroom apartment, Jia Jia embarks on an uncertain new life, one of self re-creation. She strikes up a friendship with Leo, who runs a bar near her apartment, and takes on some freelance work as an artist. The idea then strikes her to take a trip to Tibet, replicating the exact journey her husband had taken before his untimely death.
In Tibet Jia Jia meets some new people who help her unlock the mystery of “the fish man”, the strange picture her husband had drawn before he died. In the process, new information is also revealed about her troubled mother, who died young.
Braised Pork is the first novel by 26-year-old An Yu. She was born and raised in Beijing, moved to New York as a teenager and now lives between Paris and Hong Kong. She writes her fiction in English. This is an engaging and elusive debut - elusive in a good way. The story is set out in clear and simple prose – it’s a dream to read – and is rich in ambience, describing city life and its feelings of isolation. As the story progresses, it becomes more evocative and contains many dream passages where Jia Jia falls into what is described as a “world of water” that is linked to “the fish man”. This world of water could be described as a state of being, almost a state of nothingness, that offers relief from Jia Jia's grief and depression. In the world of water, Jia Jia doesn't have to be anything, but can be happy to simply exist. It's a dark, yet meditative place.
Some readers may find Braised Pork too abstract and intangible. The more evocative dream sequences can leave you scratching your head as to what it all really means. But too much explanation could have tipped this sensitive and delicate story, with its strong vein of magic realism, into something more blunt and prosaic.
A highly enjoyable debut and an author to watch.
Release date 21st January, 2020
Braised Pork, by An Yu. Published by Harvill/Secker. $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Jarrett Kobek explains what’s wrong with the world in this cathartic, darkly comic novel.
It's impossible to place the novels of Turkish-American writer Jarett Kobek in any kind of category: they seem written in complete opposition to contemporary literary fiction. His anarchic style, which eschews story arcs and character development, has strong overtones of Kurt Vonnegut, and even Charles Bukowski. Kobek’s books are part razor sharp diatribe against the capitalist system, part riff on modern mass media and technology and part biting satire on just about everything. All this is loosely held together with mercurial plots and zany characters, picking their way through the debris of modern life.
Only Americans Burn in Hell begins by introducing the reader to the work of Elizabethan hack writer, Richard Johnson, and his 1599 Arthurian romance, Tom a Lincoln. That work features an island inhabited entirely by women called Fairy Land, with its reigning queen, Celia. Jarett takes some of the characters from Tom a Lincoln and revives them as supranatural beings who live for centuries, ending up in modern day California. Only Americans Burn in Hell spins madly out of control as a myriad of different elements are thrown in: a rich Saudi, a cult film-maker, Guns and Roses concerts, rants about Donald Trump and a blistering, thoroughgoing attack on the publishing industry. Indeed, the book is a major j'accuse against the liberal media, seen as nothing more than a money making machine for its amoral corporate masters. Kobek does a great job of following the money, explaining who pays for liberal opinion and reportage. (There are paradoxes aplenty in this: tax dodging, anti-union Jeff Bezos owns the left-leaning Washington Post, while the liberal entertainment industry created Donald Trump.)
Kobek's book won't be for everyone. It's acerbic and often full of profanity. One thing is sure: you won't read it in a state of torpor. It will keep you eyes pinned open in shock to the very end.
Only Americans Burn in Hell, by Jarett Kobek. Published by Serpent's Tail. $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Garry Linnell’s portrait of escaped convict William Buckley is a stunning triumph.
William Buckley (1780 – 1856) is surely one of the most intriguing and enigmatic characters of Australian history. He fought Napoleon as a soldier in the King's Own Regiment in 1799, but later came undone for receiving stolen goods - a bolt of cloth. He was given 14 years and sent to New South Wales, arriving upon the Calcutta in 1803. Exhausted and terrified, Buckley soon bolted with three other prisoners. The group separated and Buckley spent weeks on his own, living off shellfish. He probably would have expired, if not for the contact he made with the local Aboriginal people who thought he was a ghost, one of their ancestors who had died, then “jumped up” again as a white man.
Buckley spent the following 32 years living with the Wadawurrung people. He was respected by the Wadawurrung and was influential in trying to preserve the peace between different clans and groups. In 1835, Buckley re-entered European society. He was given a pardon by Governor Arthur and worked as an interpreter. This role as intermediary took its toll on Buckley, who saw many abuses of First Nations people and moved to Van Diemen's Land for the rest of his life.
Garry Linnell takes an interesting approach in Buckley's Chance, presenting the narrative in an almost fictional form. In some ways the structure of the book is like an 18th century epistolatory novel, with Linnell addressing himself to an imaginary Buckley, posing questions about his emotional state and responses to key events. Almost like speculative fiction, this style of writing gives the book a tone of intimacy and humanity, asking the reader to imagine Buckley's personal conflicts and psychological states of being. The narrative is interweaved with thorough research and quotes from key contemporaries, making the book invaluable as an early history of New South Wales, Tasmania and most notably, Victoria.
The portrait that emerges of Buckley himself is of a sad and tortured soul, caught between two cultures, one exterminating the other. His two years working with the Port Phillip Association, most notably with John Batman, was extremely painful as he assisted the land grab that saw widespread dispossession of the Wadawurrung and other peoples. Yet for all that we have on the record, plus Buckley's own memoir, The Life and Adventures of William Buckley written by journalist John Morgan (Buckley was illiterate), the man himself remains frustratingly distant and mysterious. He was often portrayed as a dolt, but surely knew more than he let on.
Buckley's Chance is a tremendous achievement. Engaging, passionate and fascinating it's a book that invited the reader to re-imagine Australia's formative years, a time that was harsh and often horrific.
Buckley's Chance, by Garry Linnell. Published by Michael Joseph. $34.99
Review by Chris Saliba
China business expert Rebecca A. Fannin explains how China's tech sector is fast catching up to the West.
China's pursuit of technology dominance has progressed through three stages, according to business writer and China expert Rebecca A. Fannin. The period between 2003 – 2010 saw the flourishing of internet start-ups, phase two saw a boom in mobile phone-centric start-ups and today China is putting up stiff competition in artificial intelligence, biotech, self-driving cars, robotics, mobile payments and more.
At first China was a quick and effective imitator, but is now pulling ahead in key areas. While there are pitfalls for China's tech titans – a repressive government that could close shop on any business that gets too powerful, a lack of profitability for many emerging start-ups, despite large market share – the overall picture is of an emerging tech dragon to rival the West.
The way Fannin paints it, China could be on the cusp of global tech dominance, leading to economic dominance and a shake-up in the world order. Nothing is assured in this cut-throat world, but the sheer speed with which China has caught up with the West is no doubt ringing alarm bells in government and policy circles.
A fast paced overview of a quickly evolving tech sector with enormous potential for global disruption.
Tech Titans of China: How China's Tech Sector is Challenging the World by Innovating Faster, Working Harder and Going Global, by Rebecca A. Fannin. Nicholas Brealey Publishing. $29.99
North Melbourne Books