Flesh opens daringly with a beheading. It is Hanoi, 1896, and a young boy watches as his father, a bandit, is executed.
Life in the almost-twentieth century Annam (Vietnam today) was ugly, beheadings aside. And that is where author Khanh Ha shines – bringing to the page all those pungent odours, the grisly details of the every day, the revolting traditional ‘cures’ for smallpox, and the brown, the brown, the brown of village life:
“The color of the land must have been dyed into their souls before they were even born. One must blend with the earth, the soil that gives one crops each year.”
But we soon move onto the dark ugliness of the city of Hanoi, where young Tai is to work for a geomancer in exchange for a ‘lucky’ burial plot for his father, and where he meets Xiaoli, a Chinese girl who works in an opium den.
In Khanh Ha’s opium den, where only premium opium is smoked, we get a glimpse of silk canopies, peanut-oil lamps, mother-of-pearl etchings on the wooden beds:
“I thought of an ethereal world free of all pain, all worries. I breathed in a dark odor of caramel, and the room came to life with the occasional crackling of pipes”
I’m not sure that I’ve read anything else that has told me what opium smelled like before!
While the descriptions of 20th century Tonkin are lush and fulfilling, I wished that a finer-toothed comb could have weeded out some of the less than efficient conversations, and teased out the plot a little better. As a result, my reading of this book was very meandering – pick it up, put it down, panic that the tour stop is coming up. Didn’t help that Song of Achilles was distracting me at the same time.
Khanh Ha’s other TLC Tour stops:
Tuesday, June 19th: Savvy Verse & Wit
Monday, June 25th: The Year in Books
Thursday, June 28th: libbysbookblog
Thursday, June 28th: Drey’s Library
Tuesday, July 3rd: Man of La Book
Friday, July 13th: Book Reviews by Elizabeth A. White
Monday, July 16th: Buried in Print
Tuesday, July 17th: Mary’s Cup of Tea
Monday, July 23rd: A Novel Source