The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen

“And here you are, safe in your asylum, one of the committed. The question is: Committed to what?”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 368 pages
Read from January 26, 2021 to February 2, 2021.

I was so excited to find this anticipated sequel to The Sympathizer on Netgalley and was even more thrilled that I’ve had a chance to read and review it before its publication. This story is a immediate continuation of The Sympathizer and won’t make much sense if you have not read it.

We were the unwanted, the unneeded, and the unseen, invisible to all but ourselves. Less than nothing, we also saw nothing as we crouched blindly in the unlit belly of our ark. . . Even among the unwanted there were unwanted, and at that some of us could only laugh.

Arriving in Paris as a refugee, the Sympathizer is still reeling from the trauma of his communist reeducation camp experiences in Vietnam. He was a communist spy working in America, a double-agent, though he always classified himself as a sympathizer to either cause, not that his blood brother Bon, an anti-communist, knows that. After a horrendous journey he and Bon arrive in Paris to stay with his French-Vietnamese ‘Aunt’, the communist woman who was his correspondence while he was in America. Between mingling with her snooty left-wing intellectual friends, the Sympathizer throws himself into capitalism through drug dealing. Bon is as immensely traumatized as the Sympathizer especially as he made it out of Vietnam alive but his wife and child did not. The Sympathizer knows that Bon will kill him if he ever finds out that he isn’t the die-hard communist hater that he is and that he was once a double agent but Bon is the closest thing to family that he has had since his mother. Unable to resolve his moral and political dilemma and unsure of where his personal beliefs stand he verges on the fence of nihilism and self-destruction.

And here you are, safe in your asylum, one of the committed. The question is: Committed to what? You have had two years …to confess to the crimes you have committed, to acknowledge that after everything you have been through, everything you have done, you are still committed to revolution, which must mean you’re crazy.

The book has a completely different tone and approach than the previous book. The Sympathizer was deliberately written as a spy or adventure type of novel. Wanting to take a different approach, the author stated in an interview that,

“I wanted to write a dialectical novel with The Sympathizer and to write a novel deeply influenced by Marxism and Marxist theory.” and to explore ideas such as “what does [a] disillusioned former revolutionary do with himself?”

Viet Thanh Nguyen,“On Writing Memory and Identity: An Interview with Viet Thanh Nguyen

This novel is by far more philosophical and theoretical than The Sympathizer which, at times is refreshing, but if you were hoping for more of the same spy action you might be disappointed. It’s not that this plot isn’t without action it’s that the author’s state is distressing and even while filling his head with rhetoric from people he would have gone on with previously, he see flaws in their beliefs and their racist personas and can’t come to terms with the indifferent person he is now. This story is one of trauma, love, friendship, sexism, rhetoric, and racism. The writing quality is still of immense quality and you still feel committed to this sad character and how his story is going end, it just didn’t pack the same punch as The Sympathizer. However, that book is definitely a tough act to follow. The narrator’s inner thoughts are still the best parts of the story and how he manages his trauma, decisions, and realisations. I really enjoyed reading this conclusion of his story and would highly recommend reading this novel to any that enjoyed The Sympathizer.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid

You will be scared. But you won’t know why…

4/5 stars.
ebook, 183 pages.
Read November 16, 2020 to November 19, 2020.

If you have read this book and want to watch the Netflix show, DO NOT WATCH IT. I mean, even if you haven’t read the book I wouldn’t recommend watching the show. It was overly artsy, extremely drawn-out, boring, and missed all the best aspects and feel of the book. However, the book, I assure you is worth reading so just stick with that. A friend recommended this book, and when I first started reading it began as a typical relationship-based fiction but then, oh man, was I in for a surprise.

Jake and his girlfriend are on a road trip to meet Jake’s parents for the first time. The narration is from the girlfriend’s perspective and takes on a stream of consciousness approach as she ruminates about ending the relationship during the snowy ride over the family home.

“I’m thinking of ending things. Once this thought arrives, it stays. It sticks. It lingers. It’s always there. Always.

Jake once said, “Sometimes a thought is closer to truth, to reality, than an action. You can say anything, you can do anything, but you can’t fake a thought.”

And here’s what I’m thinking: I don’t want to be here.”

Outside of a strange reoccurring phone call and message the girlfriend keeps receiving, the road trip itself seems fairly normal until the couple gets to their destination. From there the narrative begins to show frays before completely unravelling during the detour on the trip home that finds Jake and his girlfriend trapt and lost in his old high school. As the girlfriend’s thought process progresses, she explores the inner depths of the psyche that covers everything from existentialism, intelligence, death, being alone, relationships, and mental illness.

“People talk about the ability to endure. To endure anything and everything, to keep going, to be strong. But you can do that only if you’re not alone. That’s always the infrastructure life’s built on. A closeness with others. Alone it all becomes a struggle of mere endurance.”

As the story spirals you come to realise that there is more to story than was initially present. The narrator becomes increasingly unclear all while you’re being sucked into this terrifying psyche. It’s a masterful psychological thriller that allows you to enter the mind of someone on the edge of ruminating between their perceived failings in life and the choice of death.

“What if suffering doesn’t end with death? How can we know? What if it doesn’t get better? What if death isn’t an escape? What if the maggots continue to feed and feed and feed and continue to be felt? This possibility scares me.”

I was on the absolute edge of my seat reading the last quarter of this book. I wasn’t sure if I wanted it all to end while also wanting to get through the anxiety-inducing plot as quickly as possible. It’s not often a book can produce that kind of effect, which is exactly what the Netflix show lacked, especially because it threw in random dance sequences and musical numbers at the pinnacle part of the story that was supposed to be terrifying. Needless to say, I vehemently hated the Netflix adaptation. The book is short, immensely poignant, brilliantly written. It can feel slightly convoluted at times because it’s hard to follow some of the thought processes as the plot comes undone but the feeling this book creates is consistent and remains long after you’ve finished reading. The story pulls you in until you find yourself within its inescapable hole. Arguably, I could also see why some people may not have enjoyed it for the same reasons.

I would recommend this book for those who enjoy psychological fiction and thriller and thought-provoking plots with a thriller or horror twist.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

“Living everyday in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 496 pages.
Read from October 27, 2020 to November 6, 2020.

Another great recommendation that I can’t recall where I got it from. I think I stumbled upon it as historical fiction involving multigenerational stories are concepts I get excited about. It also helps that this book racked up a variety of literary awards in 2017/2018.

Pachinko, as I learned, is a popular type of gambling in Japan that started in the 1920s. The concept of the game is a mash up of a VLT and a pinball machine.

From left to right: a pre war pachinko game, 1970s pachinko machine, bottom photos are of the current modern machines.

Pachinko, in this novel, is a metaphor for the struggles of life, especially that of the Korean family in the story, and many others during is time under Japanese occupation.

“Life’s going to keep pushing you around, but you have to keep playing…”

The story begins in the 1900s with a teen named Sunja around the beginnings of the Japanese occupation detailing her poor but humble life at a fishing village in Korea. She is taken with an older stranger to the village named Hansu who fills her head with love and promises, however, when she falls pregnant he confesses to already having a family in Japan. Hansu is wealthy and does care about Sunja but Sunja is stunned by the betrayal and refuses any help from Hansu despite knowing the social rejection she will face being an unmarried mother. She instead decides to marry a kind, but sickly, minster named Baek Isak who knows her situation and takes her in regardless. Sunja leaves her home and follows her new husband to Japan. She gives birth to her first son Noa and to another son by Baek Isak named Mozasu. She lives with Baek Isak’s brother and sister-in-law in the Korean slums in Japan. While she finds a deep companionship with her sister-in-law, Japan is immensely unkind to Koreans and the conditions in which she lives are worse than they were in Korea. Sunja is stubborn and persistent and shakes conventional norms for the sake of keeping her family fed. Sunja’s sons struggle with acceptance as they are born and raised in Japan but their heritage makes them less than in the eyes of the Japanese. This struggle is particularly awful for Noa, who, is very academically astute, tended to hide is heritage. Mozasu is a much more practical child who grows up to take on a pachinko business, often viewed as dishonourable work. Despite Sunja’s rejection of Hansu, the decision comes to affect her whole life as well as her sons’, as Hansu isn’t so easily deterred.

Pachinko is a deeply moving story that encompasses so many themes and emotions. While the story embodies struggle, it’s very much about love, resilience, standing by your beliefs, and ambition. You become deeply invested in these sturdy and resilient characters as they endure hardship over nearly four generations.

“People are awful. Drink some beer.”

The book emphasises and focuses on strong and stubborn female characters with empathic and equally as strong male characters that compliment them in a compromising and highly patriarchal society. The story itself is very much focused on the characters and doesn’t discuss the nuances of the political situation in too much depth other than the depictions of suffering and persecution that this family endured. I think this approach has made this book accessible to readers who may not enjoy historical fiction. For me, it made me want to learn more about this tumultuous time for Korea as after the Japanese occupation is when the North and South of Korea parted ways, making for a very long and difficult era for Korea and its people.

Overall it was a wonderful and enrapturing read, despite it being a bit long, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in historical fiction, multigenerational sagas, immersive characters, or an interest in Korean and Japanese culture and relations.