REVIEW: Flesh by Khanh Ha

Reviewed by Laura Roberts

Khanh Ha’s novel, Flesh, is an unusual, complicated story of human frailties and desires. Set in 19th century Vietnam, the book opens with a vivid (some might even say gruesome) description of the public beheading of the narrator’s father—a common thief. The boy, Tài, watches as each of the members of his father’s gang are summarily executed, and though Tài himself admits he was never close to his father, the scene has lasting consequences.

Miraculously surviving a smallpox outbreak, which claims his younger brother, Tài becomes determined to reunite his father’s head with the rest of his body. Though his mother has been allowed to bury the headless corpse in her backyard (as per common custom at that time), Tài’s father’s head is placed on a pike outside the city as a warning to other would-be thieves. How can he reclaim it without further offending the citizens whom his father has robbed? Furthermore, why bother attending to this task for a father that has never done right by his family? Tài wants to settle the score, avenging his father’s death by killing the man who ratted him out, but also by allowing his father’s and brother’s spirits to rest once their bones have been properly settled.

As Tài pursues his quest, he is aided by his employer, Chim, and Chim’s daughter Xoan. Chim provides ferryboat service on the river, and picks up a geomancer—a man who scouts out auspicious burial plots for the wealthy. Tài realizes that this man can help him find a better resting place for both his father and brother, and tells his mother of his plan. She makes a deal with the geomancer, sending Tài to work for him as payment for the burial plot.

And then… well, you’ll have to read the rest of the book to find out just what happens when you trust a geomancer with your life and death!

This historic fictional tale is a sweeping saga of family loyalties, religious and mystical beliefs, and the normal daily struggles of average people in 19th century Vietnam. Divided into chapters with titles like “The Demonic Opium Pipe” and “The Silk Woman,” Ha vividly paints scenes and characters with fine, careful brushstrokes, nudging his narrator forward from revenge-obsessed child to world-weary man. The story emerges gradually as from a mist—or perhaps a cloud of opium—with these tales told by an old man looking back on his life’s journey. Who is Tài, really, and how did he get to where he is today—an old man with a shiny skull and a pocket watch with a black-and-white photograph of a woman as the defining talismans of his personal history?

Is the desire for revenge enough to define or sustain a life? What happens when a child loses his father at a young age? Does even a common thief deserve forgiveness? Where do our ancestors go after they die, and can they help us to carry out our own individual destinies? Flesh offers readers a chance to explore these questions through a very human tale, sprinkled with ancient customs and superstitions as well as deeply-held religious beliefs both Asian and European.

This is an excellent Halloween selection for its dark themes, haunting spirits and gritty portrayal of life in Northern Vietnam.

EXTRA BONUS SECTION

Wanna win a $50 gift card or an autographed copy of Flesh?

  1. Leave a comment on my blog! One random commenter during this Novel Publicity blog tour will win a $50 gift card. For the full list of participating blogs (and more chances to enter!), visit the official Flesh tour page.
  2. Enter the Rafflecopter contest! I’ve posted the contest form below, or you can enter on the tour page linked above.

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 graduated from Ohio University with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism. He is at work on a new novel.

Connect with Khanh on his website, blog, Facebook, GoodReads, or Twitter.

Get Flesh on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

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