Author: Khanh Ha
Genre: historical fiction
Pages: 366 (hardback edition)
Published: June 2012
Source: HFVBT for review
The setting is Tonkin (northern Vietnam) at the turn of the 20th century. A boy, Tai, 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, Tai’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, Tai 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 Tai 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.
"...the Annamese didn't live very long, so we were prepared when we got old enough to think of death."
This is going to be a hard book for me to review. Reading Flesh was an unusual, unique but very compelling reading experience. Depicting an unfamiliar and often harsh area of the world, Ha's talent for language and crafting a visual is apparent early on, and lends itself equally well to creating a vibrant and three-dimensional narrator in Tai. An impressive debut novel, Flesh is beautiful and dark, sad and moving, all at the same time. Capturing the time and characters so well, this is an easy novel to dive into, but hard to digest. At its heart, Flesh is a novel about revenge, love, and adventure - one that encounters the wide array of the human experience as the novel follows Tai on his winding road to adulthood and peace.
Twentieth century Tonkin is not an area or time that I went into this novel knowing much of anything about. Having finished this novel earlier, with many a bout of Googling during my read, I can say that Flesh is a novel that details a place so well you find yourself curious for more information. Historical fiction that excels with place-as-character tends to have that effect. It leaves you hungry for more, and that's just what Ha does here with now-northern Vietnam. Formerly controlled by China and under French control during the time the book is set, Tai's life is full of various hardships: smallpox, bandits, poverty, and starvation are part and parcel to life during this time. The struggles that Tai faces in turn-of-the-century Tonkin are utterly unlike anything I would encounter in my modern American life (imagine your granduncle executing your father, and still remaining involved in family life), but Ha's lyrical way with words and gift for writing complex and rounded characters makes Tai and his mother make it easy to empathize and sympathize with each.
Flesh is a darker book - a lot of what happens to Tai is defined by the violence he witnesses or participates in. Death, and the guilt over death, follows the narrator at every aspect of his life. His father's beheading, the loss of his brother, the encounters and murders in the city - Tai is not a villain, but he isn't above doing what he needs to survive -- and to helping others survive. For however brutal life can be, Tai manages to find the good in what he does and who he knows -- even when the most unforeseen events and people cross his path. Even the romance, which I admit I was wary about going into the novel, fits well within the frame of the plot. As Flesh is less plot-driven and more an exploration of Tai's life, his ill-fated love story adds another, inherent believable, layer to the story.
Flesh is a fresh, all-encompassing debut. Ha doesn't shy away from tough topics like betrayal, revenge and deceit, but he isn't afraid to showcase the lighter side of life as well. This is an author that can tug on your heartstrings equally well with sadness or joy. The easy voice, the lovely prose, the vivid characters are all add up to an immersive read that ends in an utterly unexpected manner. From start to finish, Flesh was an utterly compelling and unique read. For anyone looking for a historical fiction novel unlike any other I've read, this is the one I would recommend.