Diamond Hill by Kit Fan

Kit Fan’s writing style has beautiful similarities to Murakami in terms of tone and unique character work but he brings them together in his own unique and poetic style.

I know…it’s been weeks since my last post. I’m coming up on the final two months of my post-graduate program so I am hoping that regular posts will resume soon.

4/5 stars
ARC ebook, 221 pages.
Read from March 9, 2021 to March 12, 2021.

I discovered this book from the social media page of a local English bookstore I follow in Hong Kong called Bleak House Books. It’s the best English bookstore in Hong Kong, in my opinion, as they promote and support local authors and have a wide range of carefully curated literature, comics, and more, both in-store and online. If you’re in Hong Kong, I highly recommend that you check them out. A big thanks to Netgalley for having an ARC copy of this book that I was able to get my eager hands on..

This novel is set to be published on May 13, 2021.

Diamond Hill is a debut novel by Kit Fan, a born and raised Hong Konger, who moved to the UK at the age of 21.

Having called Hong Kong my home for over five years now, I love reading about this fascinating city and its immense and intricate history and people.

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May 21, 2020

Diamond Hill is an area on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong and contrary to its name, Diamond Hill has never contained any diamonds. In Cantonese, the word “diamond” (鑽石) has the same pronunciation as “to drill rocks” as Diamond Hill used to be a stone quarry. Diamond Hill has a long history and is an area in Hong Kong that was settled long before the British arrived, as early as the 18th century. Diamond Hill was once considered the “Hollywood of the Orient” but it turned into an ungoverned slum of squatters and shanty homes. Hong Kong’s lack of public housing created slums all over Hong Kong from the 1950s to the late 1980s. During this time the Kai Tak airport was located nearby. Planes landing at Kai Tak had to brush past both the Diamond Hill slums and the infamous Walled City slums nearby making it one of the most dangerous places to land a plane back in the day. Today, most slums have been demolished, with both Diamond Hill and the Walled City having been refurbished into a stunning park and garden. The Nan Lian Garden has replaced the shacks and the Chi Lin Nunnery, which is likely the one referenced in the book as it was built in the 1930s as a Buddhist nun retreat, was rebuilt in 1998 in Tang Dynasty style. The infamous Walled City slum relics and the park is only a quick MTR stop away from Diamond Hill. These areas are some of my all-time favourite places in Hong Kong for theri beauty and their history.

Top left: Nan Lian Garden. Photo by me
Top Right: Chi Lin Nunnery. Photo by me
Bottom right: An airplane approaching Kai Tak airport overtop of the Walled City. Photo from Unforbidding City
Bottom: Diamond Hill in 1983. Phot
o by Ko Tim-keung on Zolima City Magazine

Diamond Hill takes place in the late 80s, just as demolition is starting to take place in squatter slums all over Hong Kong, all the while the current British government is working on handing Hong Kong back over to China. Diamond Hill is run by triad gangsters and drug dealers and is enveloped with poverty, yet there is a feeling of community within its shanty homes. The narrator, nicknamed Buddha, is a former heroin addict that has found himself back at his former home after recovering from his addiction under the guidance of a monk he befriended while in Thailand. While not a full monk himself, Buddha appears as one. As he arrives in Diamond Hill, he runs into an eccentric woman, Aubrey Hepburn, who insists she dated Bruce Lee and is aggressively cutting a teenage girl’s hair. Having prior experience as a hairdresser, Buddha assists in cutting the girl’s hair. Buddha then makes his way to the temple where the head nun, the Iron Nun, is in a fight to keep the temple in place with the looming threat of demolition while a new nun, Quartz, aims to rid herself of her past. Buddha learns that the teenage girl he assisted, Boss, runs a drug scheme under the Triad gang and that Aubrey Hepburn is her adoptive mother who has ideations of a former time of ritz and glamour. Each character is attempting to escape their past while mourning for the change that is occurring and the fear that is brewing with the city’s handover.

The book simultaneously explores colonialism, displacement, loss, and how the past always tangles with the future. It’s a testament of love to a changing city while exploring a compelling narrative of identity and the inability to escape our past. The story is a mirror of misfit characters in a misfit city that’s not been able to claim its own identity with others that are constantly meddling in its future. While its ending is ambivalent, each character has finally made choices for themselves and are moving towards a future that they will control, leaving the reader wondering about the outcome of each of the characters and the city that gets left behind. Kit Fan’s writing style has beautiful similarities to Murakami in terms of tone and unique character work but he brings them together in his own unique and poetic style. Kit Fan’s writing is visceral and raw, with its writing appropriately paired and complemented with Cantonese characters and translations, emphasising just how robust and expressive Cantonese is, deepening the story’s meaning and effect on the reader while giving off an undeniable Hong Kong feel.

This novel has been one of my favourite reads of 2021 thus far. I was enthralled with the plot, its characters, and the narrative style. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who has spent any time in Hong Kong or is interested in its robust history. I also think that those who are bilingual in both written Cantonese and English will especially enjoy this novel. Even for those who have never had the pleasure of visiting Hong Kong, this book holds a riveting tale with a historical premise that will be appealing to most.

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.

As You Were by David Tromblay

Tromblay takes a no-holds-barred, full-frontal approach to his writing that is immersive and, at times, shocking.

4/5 stars.
ARC ebook, 251 pages.
Read from October 14, 2020 to October 19, 2020.

A big thank you to Dzanc Books who offered me an ARC copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

When the author learns that his father is dying he decides to write a memoir of sorts, a testament to the brutality that was inflicted on him as a child and as a young man. Tromblay is part Native American, on his father’s side, and after being abandoned by his mother, his grandmother raises him the only way she knew how. Tromblay’s grandmother lived through the reservation boarding schools that Native Americans were forced into, meaning that anything she knew about punishment came in the form of fear and physical abuse. To make matters worse, Tromblay’s father lived with them as well and not only is he an alcoholic but he suffers brain damage from a previous car accident making him extremely volatile and aggressive. Tromblay’s father always said to him, that the day that he could “take him” was the day he had no place under his roof. Tromblay eventually escapes his tormenters and finds himself in the Armed Forces as a young man. While his capacities for violence were put to good use, his experiences inevitably led to further trauma. 

Tromblay takes a no-holds-barred, full-frontal approach to his writing that is immersive and, at times, shocking. The book moves back and forth in time to parts of Tromblay’s childhood to pieces of his adult life and his time in the Armed Forces, often half a world away. Tromblay’s story is a unique coming of age story that discloses so much pain and humiliation and yet it is still an engaging read as the book’s tone is not one of pity. You get the idea that the author has accepted that this is just the way things are, just like a straight-faced soldier who has compartmentalizes his pain.  The story is written in the second person, as the author addresses himself giving the story a poetic and poignant feel, despite its raw content. As a reader you’re drawn to Tromblay’s torment through its honest and direct structure as well as the poetic style that comforts you, as you somehow already surmise the strength behind the author’s words, anticipating a positive outcome. 

“He does die, but it takes you another half-dozen drafts to say what you need to say. With his last breath, the last bit of angst drips out of your pen.”

p.250

Tromblay’s story is less about pain and more about overcoming it by confronting it head-on. It’s about a grieving process unique to those who have experienced traumas by people who were supposed to care for them as well as those affected by war and death. While there are many graphic details in the story that some might find triggering or disturbing, it was all part of a necessary process for Tromblay. His father’s death is an opportunity to release, maybe not forgive, but to let go and move on. 

With his father’s death, Tromblay finds some healing from his past and a future in writing to look forward to. After a decade in the Army, Tromblay went on to pursue his MA in Creative Writing having since published two books, of which this is his second. This book covers so many dynamic themes that it is an approachable story for those that are willing to follow in the author’s disturbing past and hopeful future. I would highly recommend it.

This novel is expected to be available for purchase in February 2021.