Book Review: Flesh by Khanh Ha
When you were growing up, what things were important to you? Dressing according to the latest fashion, possessing the coolest toys and gadgets, getting good grades and doing your homework, having friends you adored—that all sounds about right, if you grew up in late twentieth century America.
Enter Tai, the protagonist of the literary novel Flesh by Khanh Ha, a boy growing up in nineteenth century Vietnam. Tai’s priorities are much different than yours or mine. The story starts with Tai watching his father get beheaded and quickly unfolds into a tale of duty, familial obligations, and misery.
Tai doesn’t care about having the things he wants—and if he ever does, he quickly gets over it. His main mission is to avenge his father’s death by killing the man who betrayed him to the authorities, and to ultimately reunite his father’s head with his body. Duty unfurls into more duty as Tai is sent into indentured servitude to secure a nice burial site for his father and now deceased younger brother (yes, more death—thank you, small pox). His first master sells him off to a second, and things just continue to get more complicated for poor Tai.
In this culture, pleasure comes from performing your obligations selflessly, hanging out in a seedy opium den, or sex—sometimes sex. But they aren’t meant to be happy for long. Once achieved, old obligations are replaced by new ones. Opium kills. Sex disappoints or only serves as a temporary blip of happiness in an otherwise melancholy existence.
Family ties are tenuous at best. Throughout the entirety of the novel, Tai seems to be searching for an alternate father figure, albeit unwittingly. He finds a few men who seem to fill the role temporarily until life or past betrayal separates them again. Tai wants to find love and almost succeeds, but family intervenes again.
Through it all, Flesh proves to be an amazing portrait of another world, one I’d never thought to journey to before. You’ll feel yourself transported to Tai’s homeland through a series of minor details that prove major when put altogether. You can practically taste the snake blood rice liquor concoction on your tongue—oh yummy day!
In all seriousness, if you enjoy a rhythmic work that brings you right into the lives of the characters and don’t mind a story clouded in gloom, Flesh by Khanh Ha is a fantastic read for you.