From an oddball coupling in a Tokyo convenience store to the drowned world of a future Bangkok, the themes informing some of the best fiction from the region are diverse and surprising. Here’s some reading material for your next visit.
Pachinko by Minh Jin Lee
This historical epic is a poignant multigenerational saga that follows the lives of a Korean family in Japan. Spanning several decades, the novel delves into themes of identity, discrimination, and resilience. The story begins in the early 20th century with Sunja, a young woman who becomes pregnant by a wealthy married man, leading her to marry a young minister who offers her a chance at a new life in Japan. The novel traces the family’s struggles and triumphs as they grapple with their Korean heritage in an often-hostile Japanese society. Through its rich character development and historical context, Pachinko explores the enduring human spirit in the face of adversity, making it a compelling and emotionally resonant read.
The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen
The follow up to Nguyen’s debut novel, the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Sympathizer, is a gripping sequel. Set in the 1980s, it continues the journey of the anonymous narrator, a conflicted communist spy and double agent, as he flees to Paris. The story delves into themes of identity, politics, and the immigrant experience as the protagonist becomes embroiled in the Parisian underworld and the drug trade. Nguyen’s sharp prose and dark humor explore the complexities of post-colonialism and cultural displacement. The Committed is a thought-provoking exploration of personal and political struggles, offering a deep and nuanced look at the enduring impact of war and didactic ideology.
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
India’s glaring social and economic disparities are put under the spotlight in this satirical and darkly humorous novel. Balram, a poor, rural Indian, narrates his life story as he rises from being a servant to becoming an entrepreneur and a murderer. Through Balram’s cynical and irreverent perspective, the novel explores the corruption, oppression, and class divide within Indian society. It sheds light on the exploitation of the underprivileged by the wealthy elite and the moral compromises made in the pursuit of success. The book is a biting commentary on the harsh realities of modern India and the compromises individuals make to break free from their predestined roles.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
Keiko Furukura is a socially unconventional woman in her mid-thirties who finds solace in the monotony of working at a convenience store. She embraces the store’s strict routines and the prescribed societal role it provides. Keiko struggles to fit into the mold of a “normal” woman, facing pressure from her family to conform to traditional expectations of marriage and motherhood. Kicking against these expectations, she teams up with the misogynistic Shiraha and the two become an oddball anti-couple. As she navigates the complexities of societal conformity, Keiko’s story is a unique exploration of identity, belonging, and the unconventional paths one might take to find purpose and fulfillment in a world that often demands conformity.
Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad
Sudbanthad’s beautifully woven tapestry of interconnected stories spanning centuries is as evocative as a monsoon-season downpour. It follows various characters, from a missionary doctor in the 19th century to teenagers negotiating the city’s flooded future. These narratives are linked by a common thread of urban transformation, love, loss, and the enduring spirit of Bangkok. The novel paints a vivid portrait of the city’s evolution and the emotional landscapes of its inhabitants, showcasing the city as a dynamic, living entity. Sudbanthad’s poetic prose invites readers to explore the rich tapestry of Bangkok’s past, present, and imagined future.