The setting is Tonkin (northern Vietnam) at the turn of the 20th century. A boy, Tài, witnesses the beheading of his father, a notorious bandit, and sets out to recover his head and then to find the man who betrayed his father to the authorities. On this quest, Tài’s entire world will shift. Flesh takes the reader into dark and delightful places in the human condition, places where allies are not always your friends, true love hurts, and your worst enemy may bring you the most comfort. In that emotionally harrowing world, Tài must learn to deal with new responsibilities in his life while at the same time acknowledging his bond, and his resemblance, to a man he barely knew–his father. Through this story of revenge is woven another story, one of love, but love purchased with the blood of murders Tài commits. A coming-of-age story, but also a love story, the sensuality of the author’s writing style belies the sometimes brutal world he depicts.
Well, it’s time for another blog tour review. Today, I’m taking part in the Novel Publicity tour for Khanh Ha’s debut novel, Flesh.
Disclaimer: The folks at Novel Publicity gave me a copy of Flesh in exchange for my honest review. Read on for my thoughts and then to see what kind of goodies you can win.
I was initially drawn into the book by the cover. Look at it up there. Isn’t it gorgeous? And then we have the first chapter where we meet Tài as an old man and he shows the reader his two prized possessions.
In my twilight years, my possessions are sparse…One of them is a pocket watch. You open its cover and on the inside there’s a woman’s black-and-white picture…This watch belonged to a man who betrayed my father so he could step into the woman’s life – my mother’s. They were part of a gang of outlaws led by my father. All of them were beheaded except the traitor, who was rewarded handsomely and disappeared thereafter.
The other article is a human skull. It sits on my window ledge looking out from its empty eye sockets at birds, trees…But there it sits on my window ledge, aged in ivory yellow – the traitor’s skull – and I bear him no more hatred. I polish him now and then, for I know his occult neatness. He used to arrange his slippers outside his sleeping chamber, so precisely even that you could draw two parallel lines on either side of them. Only then could he sleep. His loveless, enigmatic life happened to cross mine.
What a beginning. It’s even more poignant when you discover who the skull belongs to.
I found Flesh to be a dark, fascinating read, with Tài taking me places I’d never been before. I knew next to nothing about historical Vietnam before this book, so being able to peek into a different culture was a treat. The author gives the reader glimpses into villages–with their inherent rivalries–cities, and river culture, as well as a look at the influences that China and France had on the Vietnamese people.
Khanh Ha’s use of language is quite strong, for the most part. He’s a fine storyteller and creates beautiful images such as when Tài’s co-worker Lin Gao splits open a banana frond with his knife or when the silver carp jumps for the moon (part of a charming scene between Tài and the girl he’s fallen in love with). And his similes can be quite lovely, such as when he compares a late-night food peddler pushing his cart to “a malnourished spirit in the dim light of his lantern” or Tài to a salamander after he crawls out of the river he has jumped into in an attempt to outrun the smallpox fever he suffers from.
Mr. Ha also has a strong ear for dialogue, and most of his characters are interesting. I was especially fond of Lin Gao’s tale and that of his dog and wanted to know more about the monk and his mission of preserving the sutras.
My complaints are few. The prose occasionally stumbles, the ending feels a little abrupt, and, as some other reviewers have pointed out, the synopsis is somewhat misleading. The story, to me, is less about Tài seeking revenge than it is his struggle to honor his family, including his executed father, and grow into being an honorable man. I even lost track of Tài’s desire to avenge his father (although it does come back around), becoming more interested in Tài’s navigating the tangled web of the society he finds himself a part of as he leaves his small village and travels to Hanoi to work to pay off his family debt.
Taking those caveats into account, I thought Flesh was quite a good read. If you enjoy historical fiction with interesting characters and delightful prose, you might want to check it out.
- Leave a comment on my blog. One random commenter during this tour will win a $50 gift card. For the full list of participating blogs, visit the official Flesh tour page.
- Enter the Rafflecopter contest! Sadly, WordPress won’t let me post the contest form below, so please enter on the tour page linked above, if you’re so inclined.
About the author: Khanh Ha was born in Hue, the former capital of Vietnam. During his teen years he began writing short stories which won him several awards in Vietnamese adolescent magazines. He graduated from Ohio University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He is at work on a new novel.