Thursday, January 10, 2013


Flesh by Khanh Ha
Black Heron Press, 2012
Hardcover, 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9780930773885
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 acknowledge his bond, and his resemblance, to a man he barely knew-his father. Through this story of revenge is woven a 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:
Flesh by Khanh Ha opens up with a much older Tai reflecting on a tumultuous time in his life when he was a teenager. At age 16, Tai, along with his mother and younger brother, witnessed the beheading of his father, a known bandit. After a terrible bout with smallpox, from which his younger brother dies, Tai sets out on a mission to retrieve his father's skull so it can be buried with his body, as well as uncover and seek revenge on the man who betrayed his father. He becomes an indentured servant to one man, is entangled in the opium trade, and then his contract is sold to another rich man in exchange for a favored burial site for his father and brother. Tai ends up rescuing, falling in love, and even killing to protect Xiaoli, another indentured servant who works in an opium den in Hanoi.
Throughout the novel Tai is always concerned about his mother and he burial site for his father and brother's bodies. It is clear that the gap between the wealthy and the poor is large; life is harsh and the average citizen is struggling to survive in what ever way they can. At the same time, Tai is experiencing gaps in his cultural and linguistic knowledge between the Annam and the Chinese.
Flesh is a dark, atmospheric historical fiction novel that captures life in Tonkin (northern Vietnam) at the turn of the 20th century. Ha skillfully uses descriptive prose, in some instances it is almost poetic,and many of his descriptions evoke a sensory-filled reaction - sometimes ominous. The settings he describes can be filled with a sensual richness or evoke a sense of foreboding. And, while Flesh is about family loyalties and the daily struggles of people, it is also a violent novel, sometimes seemingly casually so, which could be disturbing to some readers.

In some cases the prose could have been tightened up and the actual storyline made a bit more concise. There is a fine line between artistic expression and expressionism in writing. Also, sometimes it felt like there was a sharp contrast between Ha's rich prose and the character's dialogue. While the action in the novel was always engaging, I did lose track of the point of the plot in some areas, which made me think it could have been made more clear with just a few minor additions (and subtractions) in the writing.
All in all, Flesh is highly recommended and I'll be looking forward to what author Khanh Ha publishes next. I think he is definitely a writer to watch.
Quotes:      First Chapter
Khanh Ha was born in Hue, the former capital of Vietnam. During his teen years, he began writing short stories which won several awards in Vietnamese adolescent magazines. He graduated from Ohio University (Athens, Ohio) with a bachelor's degree in Journalism. Flesh is his first novel. He is at work on another novel.


Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of this book from the author and Premier Virtual Author Book Tours for review purposes.   


Khanh Ha said...

Thank you, Lori, for your well-rounded review. I certainly hope that someone else might get a chance to read the book and enjoy it much as you did.

Teddy Rose said...

Thanks for taking part in the tour. I am so glad you enjoyed Flesh!