Bite-Sized Books: Mini Reviews of The Vegetarian, The Children’s Home, and Perfect Days

I’ve been in a very particular reading mood– I want to read adult literary fiction (preferably translated fiction) that is short (under 300 pages) with a creepy/dark atmosphere I can spend a day dwelling on. I’m usually not very picky about my books, so it’s always difficult to find something to sate such a specific thirst.

Here are the books I picked up as promising contenders:

25489025The Vegetarian by Han Kang.
Genre: Adult – Literary Fiction.
Pages: 188.
Format: Kindle.
Publisher: Hogarth.
Pub. Date: October 30, 2007 (English: February 2, 2016). 
Purchased (Returned).

Before the nightmare, Yeong-hye and her husband lived an ordinary life. But when splintering, blood-soaked images start haunting her thoughts, Yeong-hye decides to purge her mind and renounce eating meat. In a country where societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye’s decision to embrace a more “plant-like” existence is a shocking act of subversion. And as her passive rebellion manifests in ever more extreme and frightening forms, scandal, abuse, and estrangement begin to send Yeong-hye spiraling deep into the spaces of her fantasy. In a complete metamorphosis of both mind and body, her now dangerous endeavor will take Yeong-hye—impossibly, ecstatically, tragically—far from her once-known self altogether.

A disturbing, yet beautifully composed narrative told in three parts, The Vegetarian is an allegorical novel about modern day South Korea, but also a story of obsession, choice, and our faltering attempts to understand others, from one imprisoned body to another.

I picked this book up after hearing (mostly) rave reviews. It won this year’s Man Booker International prize for its English translation by Deborah Smith and its synopsis had me dreaming of some twisted, bloody, nameless horror. Unfortunately, I could tell from the first pages this book wasn’t for me. There was some sort of disconnect between myself and the narration– I’m still not certain if it’s a cultural disconnect or issues with the translation or just plain old inability to empathize with the main characters.

I thought the characters ranged from annoying to downright despicable and the plot entirely unnecessary and avoidable (honestly, just leave Yeong-hye alone already!) There were multiple scenes of marital rape that just felt gratuitous (but you’ll find it tough to convince me that any rape scene is necessary and not at all gratuitous.) I fought through it in almost double the time it should have taken me to read such a short book.

It’s not a bad book. It’s literary and metaphorical and I would find it really interesting if it were assigned for a class and I had to write a paper on it. It’s particularly rich in discussion points, but ultimately I did not care to discuss it any more than necessary. I returned this and vowed to use Kindle samples more often to save myself the trouble in the future.

25110927The Children’s Home by Charles Lambert.
Genre: Adult – Literary Fiction.
Pages: 210.
Format: Hardcover.
Publisher: Scribner.
Pub. Date: January 5, 2016.

In a sprawling estate, willfully secluded, lives Morgan Fletcher, the disfigured heir to a fortune of mysterious origins. Morgan spends his days in quiet study, avoiding his reflection in mirrors and the lake at the end of his garden. One day, two children, Moira and David, appear. Morgan takes them in, giving them free reign of the mansion he shares with his housekeeper Engel. Then more children begin to show up.

Dr. Crane, the town physician and Morgan’s lone tether to the outside world, is as taken with the children as Morgan, and begins to spend more time in Morgan’s library. But the children behave strangely. They show a prescient understanding of Morgan’s past, and their bizarre discoveries in the mansion attics grow increasingly disturbing. Every day the children seem to disappear into the hidden rooms of the estate, and perhaps, into the hidden corners of Morgan’s mind.

The Children’s Home is a genre-defying, utterly bewitching masterwork, an inversion of modern fairy tales like The Chronicles of Narnia and The Golden Compass, in which children visit faraway lands to accomplish elusive tasks. Lambert writes from the perspective of the visited, weaving elements of psychological suspense, Jamesian stream of consciousness, and neo-gothic horror, to reveal the inescapable effects of abandonment, isolation, and the grotesque – as well as the glimmers of goodness – buried deep within the soul.

Now this one is… growing on me. I finished it several days ago and sometimes I still catch myself thinking about it. The majority of the book was dry and I felt like it took an eternity for the story to get going (a miraculous feat considering it’s only 210 pages.)

This slim volume turned out to be something of a fairy tale for adults, a story you might read to your parents at bedtime to scare them into behaving. I don’t want to say much more about it for risk of spoilers, and I also think the moral I took from this story was a deeply personal one so I would be interested to hear what others made of this strange little book.

My biggest critique is that this book came to an obvious conclusion about 20 pages before its actual conclusion, and I truly feel everything after that point was a mistake. Regardless, I will probably be passing this along to someone who might appreciate it more than I did. It really does deserve more love than I can give it.

25716724Perfect Days by Raphael Montes.
Genre: Adult – Thriller. 
Pages: 272. 
Format: Hardcover.
Publisher: Penguin Press.
Pub. Date: March 18, 2014. (English: February 16, 2016).

Teo Avelar is a loner. He lives with his paraplegic mother and her dog in Rio de Janeiro, he doesn’t have many friends, and the only time he feels honest human emotion is in the presence of his medical school cadaver—that is, until he meets Clarice. She’s almost his exact opposite: exotic, spontaneous, unafraid to speak her mind. An aspiring screenwriter, she’s working on a screenplay called Perfect Days about three friends who go on a road trip across Brazil in search of romance. Teo is obsessed. He begins to stalk her, first following her to her university, then to her home, and when she ultimately rejects him, he kidnaps her and they embark upon their very own twisted odyssey across Brazil, tracing the same route outlined in her screenplay. Through it all, Teo is certain that time is all he needs to prove to Clarice that they are made for each other, that time is all he needs to make her fall in love with him. But as the journey progresses, he digs himself deeper and deeper into a pit that he can’t get out of, stopping at nothing to ensure that no one gets in the way of their life together. Both tense and lurid, and brimming with suspense from the very first page, Perfect Days is a psychological thriller in the vein of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley—a chilling journey in the passenger seat with a psychopath, and the English language debut of one of Brazil’s most deliciously dark young writers.

Okay, moment of truth: I am only 70 pages into this book. I picked it up because of the adorable cover and its passing resemblance to You by Caroline Kepnes, which we all know by now is one of my favorite books.

Unfortunately, as 70 pages has revealed, this book is more than passingly similar to You, without the benefit of a likable narrator. I don’t think this was intentional, as both books were published in the same year, and in two different countries. However, my undying adoration for Caroline Kepnes and her narrator, Joe Goldberg, is keeping me from enjoying Perfect Days at all, and I’m already considering returning it to get something I will actually like.

I’ve yet to find anything to check off everything on my reading wishlist, so if you have any recommendations let me know!


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