Underground Voices, 2014
paperback; arc - thanks!
Khanh Ha is a Vietnamese author whose book Flesh I read sometime back and enjoyed. He is a three-time Pushcart nominee as well as the recipient of Greensboro Review’s 2014 Robert Watson Literary Prize in Fiction. His work has also appeared in several magazines and journals. His newest book, the demon who peddled longing is just now out, published by Underground Voices.
In this book, the author unearths the darker side of human nature as his young (19 years old) protagonist, known only as "the boy," sets out on a quest for revenge. What happens to him during his journey is the focus of this very interesting novel.
In a better time in his past, the boy had fallen in love with his cousin, the daughter of the uncle who raised him. He makes no apologies for the situation, and one day out of nowhere, she simply disappeared. When he finally finds her, she's been dead for two days, and had been brutally raped. To make matters worse, his uncle was bitten by a venomous snake while making a visit to his daughter's grave. The boy has kept that hurt with him since and it has caused some deep pain and psychological damage which he's carried with him on his mission to find the two men who caused her death. He knows only that he's looking for two brothers, and he's been roaming around trying to find them and make them pay for what they did. His travels lead him to some very interesting encounters with different people who have to shoulder their own torments just to carry on living.
At its heart, the demon who peddled longing is good story, and the wide variety of characters rule this book from its beginning. The tale of the boy has a circular feel with the end returning to its beginning as though the boy has returned with life lessons under his belt and gets a chance to start over again. It also examines the continuing legacies of the war in Vietnam. And as original as the story may be, I just wasn't in love with the book as a whole. My biggest issue here is that the writing is really uneven. There are sections of the book that flow along so nicely and then it's like you hit another section where words just sort of explode all around you and the flow just stops and starts in on a ramble. I get that every writer has his/her own style, but the effect is pretty jarring to the reader. There are also a number of scenes that imo were way too drawn out, going on too long -- for example, do we really need to be repeatedly put through a man's boils bursting and pus oozing, etc. etc.? Or did we really need an entire page on a wife ministering to her impotent, wheelchair-bound husband? Sometimes less is so much more ... I think more judicious editing would have been a really good thing.
I read this book as part of a book tour, and even though I've quit accepting so many of these requests, I took on this one because I have a soft spot for the author whom I first became aware of with his earlier novel Flesh. I remember how in that novel I was wowed by his descriptive talent, something he showcases here as well. Despite my own issues with this book, it is garnering several four and five-star reviews among its readers. I hope it does very well.