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Review: "Flesh" by Khanh Ha

Synopsis:  The setting is Tonkin (northern Vietnam) at the turn of the 20th century. A boy, Tai, witnesses the beheading of his father, a notorious bandit, and sets out to recover his head and then to find the man who betrayed his father to the authorities. On this quest, Tai's entire world will shift. FLESH takes the reader into dark and delightful places in the human condition, places where allies are not always your friends, true love hurts, and your worst enemy may bring you the most comfort. In that emotionally harrowing world, Tai must learn to deal with new responsibilities in his life while at the same time acknowledging his bond, and his resemblance, to a man he barely knew--his father. Through this story of revenge is woven another story, one of love, but love purchased with the blood of murders Tai commits. A coming-of-age story, but also a love story, the sensuality of the author's writing style belies the sometimes brutal world he depicts.

My Thoughts:  I don't think I have ever read a work of historical fiction set in Asia, let alone in Vietnam.  I am really not familiar with the history of Vietnam so for me, this book was a breath of fresh air; it was a unique story that left me wanting to learn more about the history of this country and region.  

Khanh Ha is a fantastic writer.  His descriptions of the landscape of Vietnam were amazing.  He didn't just describe Vietnam, he created it.  I especially enjoyed his descriptions of the jungle and I think some of the most vivid descriptions were during the scenes when Tai has smallpox and ran away from his home.  I felt like I was with Tai as he moves through the jungle and eventually hides under a pile of straw; that was how vivid the author's writing is.  I also think that the author created a unique set of characters.  While Tai was the main focus, some of the side characters were just as interesting.

I will say that at times the story was a little confusing.  At times, I felt like I was reading a group of stories that had common themes and characters rather than one cohesive story.  I noticed this more in the beginning of the story: after I was about half way through the book, it felt like it started to flow better from chapter to chapter.  I kind of want to go back and read the book again because I feel like I missed things and I might understand the story better after a second look.

There was a pretty significant twist at the end which kind of shook things up.  It wasn't an obvious twist but as it got closer to being revealed, I did guess that was the way the author would end things.  It made me feel bad for Tai but at the same time it added to the 'coming of age' theme of the story.  Overall, I think that Flesh is a rare work of historical fiction that combines a unique tale with beautiful writing.  3 stars.

About the Author:

Khanh Ha was born in Hue, the former capital of Vietnam. During his teen years, he began writing short stories, which won him several awards in the Vietnamese adolescent magazines. He studied Journalism at Ohio University and learned the craft of writing under Daniel Keyes (Flowers for Algernon) and Walter Tevis (The Man Who Fell to Earth).  FLESH (Black Heron Press, June 2012) is his first novel (literary fiction).

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  1. I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed this one. I'd agree with a lot of what you said. I love the world of Vietnam that we visited. But also remember being confused. But even so, it definitely left a good impression on me.


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