Life of Pi is a survival story, religious parable, and coming-of-age tale rolled into one. Pi Patel is a curious teenager with a lifelong love for both animals and religion. In fact, he is intensely religious and practices the faiths of Hinduism, Islam and Christianity with equal zeal. When Pi is about 16 years old, his father decides to relocate his family to Canada to escape the increasingly fraught political situation of India in the 1970s. While transporting themselves and what remains of their Pondicherry Zoo on a cargo ship to Canada, the ship sinks in a storm. Brutally, Pi is instantly orphaned… and lost at sea alongside a crippled zebra, a hungry hyena, a gentle orangutan – and a fearsome Bengal tiger.
Fun Home is a graphic novel recounting the story of Alison Bechdel coming out as a lesbian. Told in non-chronological flashbacks to her childhood in Beech Creek, the story works through her difficult childhood relationship with her father, Bruce, and her gradual discovery that he, too, harboured secrets from Bechdel, her mother and siblings.
The timeline of Nothing to Envy charts the lead-up to the devastating North Korean famine (euphemistically called The Arduous March in the DPRK), a period of mass starvation that lasted from 1994 – 1999 in which between 2 and 3.5 million North Koreans lost their lives. As money and jobs dried up in the years before the famine, people started to fear the worst. Even the government regime, so reluctant to accept anything might be wrong in their workers’ paradise, instigated a propaganda campaign exhorting people to eat less food. Not that the people had much choice. By the mid-1990s, the countryside was stripped bare and mothers resorted to making soups out of grass, and porridge out of tree bark, rice husk and sawdust.
The story of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress opens as the narrator (who remains unnamed) and his best friend Luo arrive at the Phoenix of the Sky village in the Chinese province of Sichuan near the border with Tibet. The year is 1971 and Mao Zedong, Chairman of the People’s Republic of China, is conducting a policy of ‘re-education’ whereby young men of middle-class families are sent to the countryside to learn from poor peasants how to be model citizens. The two boys are tasked with menial and back-breaking work, such as coal mining and carrying buckets of faeces up the mountain to fertilize the rice fields.
An unnamed magistrate is stationed at a frontier border town of an expanding empire. He’s been posted here for a long time and, despite how far away he is from the capital, he is happy to live out his ‘easy years’ in this remote area on the border of the empire; approaching sixty, he will retire soon and, apart from the occasional sheep raids and sporadic attacks, his posting is not at all dramatic. However, rumour is spreading about a possible barbarian attack by the indigenous peoples who live on the empire’s fringes. Displaced by the foreign settlers, are they now massing together to counter-attack?
Han Kang’s The Vegetarian is one of the most internationally well-known Korean novels. It is not a story about a vegetarian per se; rather, it is a work that investigates what constitutes suffering. It tells the story of Yeong-hye as related through the eyes of three members of her family: her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister In-hye. The story begins when Yeong-hye, seemingly from out of the blue, tells her husband she will no longer eat meat and proceeds to throw all the meat in their house away.
In these stories, a man sees his favourite elephant vanish overnight; a newlywed couple suffers attacks of hunger that drive them to hold up a McDonald’s; and a young woman discovers a little green monster who burrows up through her backyard and can read her thoughts. You never know what is going to happen in one of Murakami’s stories – or even which reality you’re going to find yourself lost inside.
This short novel, written in 1934 by Shen Congwen (1902 – 1988), opens a window onto life in China before the communist revolution of 1945 – 1952. The setting is Fenghuang County, an idyllic rural area in the far west of Hunan Province. Here Cuicui lives with her grandfather, who operates a ferry boat across a river outside the small provincial town of Chadong. The boat connects the two ‘worlds’ of Shen’s story: his idealised countryside scene is tucked away in a forgotten part of the world, seemingly locked outside of time; but the town is a gateway to China’s interior lands and forces of modernity are slowly creeping towards their sleepy rural paradise…
The novel describes the way life is lived in the high mountain plateaus of Albania, where people follow an ancient code of customary law called the Kanun that has been handed down from generation to generation. The code demands men to take the law into their own hands. Insults must be avenged, family honour must be upheld – and blood must be spilt.
Published in 1979, The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories retells classic fairy tales in a disturbing, blood-tinged, explicit way. Angela Carter revises Sleeping Beauty, for example, from an adult, twentieth-century perspective. You might think that fairy tales are the sorts of stories to read to children in bed to lull them to sleep – not these versions! Her renditions are intended not to comfort but to disturb and titillate.