BOOK REVIEW EDITOR-IN-CHIEF ELLA KELLEHER WRITES – Want a personal list of the top ten best Asian novels and novellas that were either published in translation or English-authored by Asian-American writers? Look no further!
And if you’d like to view our inaugural MiniMag: A Review of Asian Fiction, click here!
10. PEOPLE FROM MY NEIGHBORHOOD (2020) BY HIROMI KAWAKAMI
Published by Granta Books
For starters, in tenth place we have Hiromi Kawakami’s collection of vignettes titled People From My Neighborhood (2020), which, recently published into English, details the individuals of her neighborhood in a brilliant piece of bite-sized fiction. In 120 pages, the reader is plunged into a lifetime of drama, secrets, and otherworldly quirkiness centered around a close-knit community in an outer ward of Tokyo, Japan. In each two or three-page close-ups, the reader begins to understand the expansive, tangled web of relationships that tie the townspeople together. In one word, this collection can be described as utterly whimsical.
9. AT THE EDGE OF THE WOODS (2022) BY MASATSUGU ONO
Published by Two Lines Press
Japanese author Masatsugu Ono writes about an unnamed country in At the Edge of the Woods (2022), where a family of three settles into a creaking house at the edge of an ominous forest. The father cannot help but notice that something is quite off about this place. Are the trees coughing? No… laughing? As so many Japanese legends have it, fantastical creatures live in the depths of the woods where feudal lords of antiquity ruled and resistance fighters were defeated. The carcasses of their once beautiful creations have made wonderful castles for the forest imps and ghouls. When a pregnant mother, who fears her unborn child will be snatched away by an imp, decides to leave and give birth elsewhere, her husband and son are left to their own devices in a home near the rural woods. At the mercy of their unknown environment, the two begin to succumb to paranoia and delusion – and at this moment is when this edgy novel about existence and cognition takes off. Delightfully and wildly eerie.
8. LONGING AND OTHER STORIES (2022) BY JUN’ICHIRŌ TANIZAKI
Published by Columbia University Press
Originally published in Japanese during his literary reign (1910-1965), legendary writer Jun’ichirō Tanizaki wrote three famous short stories that are finally accessible to an English-speaking audience in this new compilation, Longing and Other Stories (2022). Through a vulnerable child’s eyes, parents represent stability, protection, and even eternity. What happens when eternity grows small and seemingly insignificant? Adolescents, ostensibly indestructible and infinitely hot-headed, get their first taste of personal freedom and start to detach from their nurturers. As one generation grows stronger and the other dims, a tragic shift in balance occurs, and the young must be warned that they are “not the ‘master of all creation!’” This is literature for the soul at its finest.
7. WOMAN RUNNING IN THE MOUNTAINS (2022) BY YŪKO TSUSHIMA
Published by NYRB Classics
Yūko Tsushima’s novel, Woman Running in the Mountains (2022), follows society’s rejection of Takiko but not solely because of her sudden pregnancy at the tender age of twenty-one. It is Takiko’s unfettered commitment to herself and her happiness that causes her family and Japanese society to ostracize and condemn her. Takiko’s self-conviction is almost supernatural. She will go on after her pregnancy. Such an unabashed belief in oneself lends a deeper understanding to the reader: single parenthood is its own form of heroism.
6. MY ANNIHILATION (2022) BY FUMINORI NAKAMURA
Published by Soho Crime
What exactly is the ‘self,’ and how can it be defined? From modern psychology, we know that human minds can be usurped through drastic techniques such as brainwashing, manipulation, and even hypnosis. Elusive and slippery in nature, the malleable ‘self’ forms and reforms in response to social interaction and individual encounters. The answer that enigmatic author Fuminori Nakamura offers in his latest novel My Annihilation (2022) is entirely unsettling: “Under a particular set of circumstances, it becomes impossible to tell.” There is no ‘self’ because there is no true ‘individual’ to begin with. You may even lose yourself in this story that is both torrid and enlightening.
5. THE COLOR OF THE SKY IS THE SHAPE OF THE HEART (2022) BY CHESIL
Published by Soho Teen
Ginny Park, a teenage zainichi (Japan-born) Korean, is forced to come of age under the crushing weight of reality and the horrors of xenophobia, politics, and ethnic violence. Torn between her Korean heritage, her Japanese birthright, and her evolving contempt for both nations’ sociopolitical climates, she must make a fateful choice. Either bow down and lose her voice in the process or challenge the status quo and face the devastating consequences. Follow Ginny’s harrowing story in Chesil’s The Color of the Sky is the Shape of the Heart (2022). Chesil’s latest is heartbreakingly beautiful.
4. IF I HAD YOUR FACE (2020) BY FRANCES CHA
Published by Ballantine Books
Even though this book was released in 2020, it’s worth including in our countdown. South Korea, a place often nominated as the ‘plastic surgery capital of the world,’ is where it’s not only typical but expected for young women to have double eyelid surgery before they hit thirty. Jaw slimming, skin lasering, destructive dieting – these radical approaches to achieving the beauty standard are often the last resort for Korean women who want to be recognized in any way in today’s job market. Author Frances Cha hides nothing in her boldly honest novel, If I Had Your Face (2020). Cha’s tale, deserving of all the international recognition it’s receiving, follows the stories of four women living in the same officetel, battling the impossibly restrictive and often lonely confines constructed for women in Korean society. A feast for the mind rather than the eyes, this story forces much self-reflection, mirroring human plasticity well beyond Korea.
3. THE OLD WOMAN WITH THE KNIFE (2022) BY GU BYEONG-MO
Published by New Directions
South Korean author Gu Byeong-Mo’s crime-thriller novel, The Old Woman with the Knife (2022), follows Hornclaw is a sixty-five-year-old woman who refers to herself as a “disease control specialist.” The so-called ‘vermin’ she spends her time exterminating for high prices are humans with a certain rodent-like disposition. Never mind her age and perceived frailty –that is how she evades suspicion. Hornclaw is both fit and dangerous with absolutely no empathy for outsiders. None except for Deadweight, her equally aged dog. Hornclaw teeters on a fine line of calculated ruthlessness and tenderness for those she cares for. The vulnerability of emotional uncertainty spirals her down a path of reckoning, where she must make a choice to either give into love, her greatest weakness, or shun it entirely. Shocking and exhilarating, you cannot predict the twists in this tale of one exceptionally physically fit senior citizen.
2. SCATTERED ALL OVER THE EARTH (2022) BY YOKO TAWADA
Published by New Directions
What would happen if your country sank into the ocean? Would you still have a claim to your “homeland”? What about the language you speak? Could it still be considered your “native language”? In Yoko Tawada’s latest release of dystopian fiction, Scattered All Over the Earth (2022), “the land of sushi” (presumably Japan) disappears due to global warming and rising sea levels. As a result, the country lingers on only in its kitschy and most digestible form. While no one remembers the actual name of the disappeared land, people do reminisce on anime, miso soup, and cosplay. Hilarious and extra-planetary, get lost swimmingly in Tawada’s strange, new world.
1. COUNTERFEIT (2022) BY KIRSTEN CHEN
Published by The Borough Press
Do you like fast-paced thriller novels with unreliable narrators? Then open up Kirsten Chen’s latest novel, Counterfeit (2022), which follows Ava Wong – a straight-edge Chinese-American lawyer shackled to an agonizingly mundane routine of house chores and caring for her maddening infant, Henri, who cannot seem to cease his daily tantrums. Married to a successful yet always busy doctor, Ollie, Ava is desperate for a change big enough to shake the foundations of her comfortable San Francisco suburban life. Change comes in the form of Winnie, a mainland Chinese woman and formerly Ava’s college roommate from her long-past Stanford days. After a fateful reconnection, we learn that Winnie has become a tycoon of the criminal underground, running a prosperous counterfeit luxury handbag business. Winnie, a master at reading and manipulating people, sees the signs of upper-middle class discord in Ava. In a moment of profound weakness, Winnie ensnares Ava into her scheme. Dazzlingly fast paced, Chen’s finest is so good, it’s worth reading twice! So, I guess I am actually recommending 11 reads, not just 10. Happy New Year – and what an outstanding year for Asian-based fiction!