July 19th: Books That Aren’t Set In/Inspired By The Western World
I love this topic. For whatever reason I’ve had a really strong interest in books set in East Asia for as long as I can remember. I didn’t have to look further than my ‘east asia’ shelf on Goodreads for this topic, so my list isn’t going to be very broad geographically (I realize ‘non-Western’ encompasses a much wider area), but I’ve selected a couple of my favorites set in Korea, Japan, and China. Here they are:
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee: I haven’t stopped talking about this book since I read it in February, and with good reason. This is an outstanding family saga set against the backdrop of Japan’s annexation of Korea in the early 20th century. It features a handful of Korean characters who face an onslaught of discrimination when forced to relocate to Japan. This is not only an incredibly moving story, but a really educational read. Min Jin Lee integrates historical detail into her narrative with masterful precision – it never overwhelms, but still constantly edifies the reader. I highly recommend this to anyone interested in the complicated history of Japanese-Korean relations, the history of either of those countries, or just anyone looking for an entertaining family saga.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang: Korean writer Han Kang made waves when her first novel to be translated into English, The Vegetarian, won the Man Booker International award last year. This novel is outstanding and thought-provoking. It raises questions about gender and sexuality, a woman’s role in society, social norms, violence – in a lot of ways this novel offers generalized insights into the human experience, but in other ways, context is key. You can’t remove this novel from its contemporary South Korean setting, especially as Han Kang’s own experience growing up in Gwangju was such a heavy influence on the content of this novel. She goes onto explore the 1980 Gwangju uprising in a much more tangible way in her novel Human Acts, but The Vegetarian offers a much more abstract meditation on similar themes. I highly recommend both novels.
Three Souls by Janie Chang: Admittedly, I didn’t like this book as much as I liked the rest on this list. I had a lot of nitpicky problems with it, but I still found it entertaining and incredibly informative. Set in 1935 China, this provocative novel follows the journey of a young woman called Leiyin – except, the twist is that the novel begins moments after Leiyin’s death. We follow Leiyin in the afterlife and get flashbacks to her childhood, and eventually adulthood – and we find out how she died. The reason I’m including this novel on my list even though I didn’t love it was that I think it’s a really phenomenal look at the sociopolitical climate of mid 20th century China, and I recommend it more from a historical rather than a literary perspective.
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See: Lisa See is one of my favorite historical fiction writers, and I think Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is one of her strongest novels. Set in nineteenth century China, Snow Flower is a devastating story about a friendship between two young women. It features the writing system nu shu, which was developed by Chinese women in the Hunan province to communicate with one another, as they were often denied a formal education. In typical Lisa See fashion, she both educates and entertains with this novel, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in Chinese history. (Beware of very graphic descriptions of foot binding, though.) My favorite Lisa See novel (though it’s a toss up with Snow Flower) may have to be Shanghai Girls, but as it’s partially set in California, it doesn’t fit the category.
After Dark by Haruki Murakami: And finally, it seemed requisite to include a Murakami on this list. After Dark is actually my favorite of his novels that I’ve read, though it’s a lot shorter than the novels which are often associated with him. So if you haven’t read Murakami but are curious about his writing style without wanting to commit to a 500 page book, After Dark is a great place to start. After Dark takes place in the span of one night, between the hours of midnight and dawn in Tokyo and follows an eclectic group of characters. It’s a very mesmerizing and atmospheric novel which draws the reader into Tokyo nightlife in an almost voyeuristic way.
What are some of your favorite non-Western novels? And have you read any of these? Comment and let me know!