The Mermaid of Jeju by Sumi Hahn

“The half moon disappeared behind a cloud, casting the scene into darkness. The silence between the boy and girl expanded. It filled with memories of promises made, words that the world had broken.”

3/5 stars.
ebook, 300 pages.
Read from March 25, 2021 to March 31, 2021.

I’ve always been fascinated by the women on Jeju Island that, for generations, have been deep-sea diving to feed their families and community. This amazing group of divers are known as haenyeo.

“The ocean sucked each diver down greedily. But the women were prepared for battle. They swiped their knives at the fingers of the sea grass that clutched at them. They used picks to pry away shells clinging to underwater rocks. They worked the waters, humming the chants of their forebearing mothers, who had explored the deep before them.”

Set in the mid-1940s, Korea is undergoing massive change at the end of WWII with the forced withdrawal of Japanese that have occupied Korea for decades. Junja is a young woman who has recently joined the ranks of haenyeo after surviving the rite of passage from a treacherous dive. Junja, who has never left her village, convinces her mother that she is old enough and responsible enough to take the annual delivery to the mountains. During this trip, she meets a young boy named Suwol who ends up rescuing her from a dangerous situation on the road. Shook by the encounter on the road, she is equally as smitten with Suwol. Unfortunately, the quiet village where Junja lives is not immune to the political changes affecting her country with the massive upheaval left with the withdrawal of the Japanese. Nationalists now contend with Communists and the US troops have taken the place of the Japanese. When Junja returns home, she finds her mother dead. It was claimed that she drowned and was battered at sea but the real story of her death is much more harrowing. Junja is devastated. As she drowns in her grief, her siblings are sent away to live with their estranged father while she remains at home with her grandmother. Junja’s world will never be the same and she must make a choice and learn to get through the storm of changes. 

This book started strongly and captivated me with its gorgeous writing and heartbreaking outcomes. The story spans over a few decades, as it begins with where Junja ends up later in life and how her story comes full circle in the end. The rich depictions of the haenyeo and their life in this small sea village are beautiful and visceral while the plot also highlights important parts of Korean heritage and history. 

“Here is a secret: Long long time ago, when I was a girl, I was a mermaid, too.” 

The last half of the book felt less cohesive than the first causing my interest to wane near the end of the novel. It’s still a beautiful story with great characters that paint a picture of a mythical, turbulent and resilient Korea. Historical-fiction lovers will enjoy Junja’s story as well as anyone interested in post-war history or coming of age stories.

My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

“The beauty and mystery of this world only emerges through affection, attention, interest and compassion . . . open your eyes wide and actually see this world by attending to its colors, details and irony.”

3/5 stars.
Paperback, 508 pages.
Read from January 10, 2021 to January 18, 2021.

This book has been on my TBR list for years and while it was supposed to be a selection for the book club I’m in it was changed due to it being a bit too long for a monthly selection. I decided that I would still take the opportunity to read it as it had been on my list for so long.

My Name is Red is a unique piece that manages to interweave a murder-mystery plot with a love story, that takes place in a historical setting, that also pays tribute to the creation and development of Ottoman art and culture in the shadow of the West and influence. The result? A finely crafted piece of literature. The story revolves around a group of miniaturists, one of whom is murdered. One of the three remaining artists is responsible but you won’t find out who until the end. Miniaturists were artists that would work together to paint manuscripts and within the Ottoman empire, these works were often a collaboration with a head artist coming up with the plan and outline and passing off the remaining work to apprentices. These manuscripts, despite their beauty, were rarely signed by their creators which, differs greatly from the Western traditions of art. This is one of the main points of conflict in the book as some of the artists are under coming under this new Western influence. As the murder mystery unfolds, a love story also takes hold that counterbalances some of the violence in the story as well as the more factual artistic and historical references. Pamuk’s writing style and unique narrative approach are elegant, poetic, and complete with wonderful and memorable quotes that leave a lasting mark.

“Colour is the touch of the eye, music to the deaf, a word out of the darkness.”

My Name is Red is an outstanding piece of literature that brings awareness to the culture and art of the Ottoman’s in the 15th century. However, if this is not an area you’re familiar with, it can make the book harder to appreciate or understand. Don’t let that stop you from reading this book though as it is a meticulously written novel that has a beautiful read with an immensely captivating story. Books like this one, help to turn attention to places that produced phenomenal art that was generally overlooked within the Western canon.

“In actuality, we don’t look for smiles in pictures of bliss, but rather, for the happiness in life itself. Painters know this, but this is preciously what they cannot depict. That’s why they substitute the joy of seeing for the joy of life.”

My three-star rating has to do more with my own reading experience as I wish I had done a little bit of prior research just before picking up this book. I would recommend these steps for maximum enjoyment before reading this novel. Knowing what a miniaturist is a good place to start as well as getting a visual for what types of works these artists produced and how they were used and read. Thankfully, Wikipedia has a decent summary that won’t eat too much of your time. A highly recommended read for historical fiction lovers and anyone with an art appreciation.

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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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.