A good introduction to controversial Chinese author Yan Lianke

Browser reviews: a tour of 45 ‘book towns’ and Shannon Fowler’s holiday tragedy

Yan Lianke. Photograph:  Matej Divizna/Getty

Yan Lianke. Photograph: Matej Divizna/Getty

 

The Years, Months, Days by Yan Lianke

Vintage

Yan Lianke’s The Day the Sun Died, a strange, dark and compelling novel about a single night in a Chinese village when all the residents start sleepwalking, was translated by Carlos Rojas and released by Vintage this year. The Years, Months, Days, a novella of just over 100 pages, is also set against an apocalyptic landscape, though in this case it is of a village emptied of the living, rather than populated by an unruly mass. Following a drought, the population of the entire village of Henan flees, leaving only an old man and his blind dog behind. Over time, extreme hunger leads the old man into a strange, hallucinatory state: the animals are either with or against him; the whole world is a projection of his mindset. Famine was a fact of Lianke’s childhood in China, and his visions of disease-ridden landscapes, Aids villages and environmental catastrophes have made him a popular but controversial novelist in his home country. An accessible and fascinating introduction to the work of this novelist, The Years, Months, Days is a moving fable deserving of a wide readership.

Book Towns: Forty-Five Paradises of the Printed Word by Alex Johnson

Frances Lincoln, £14.99

A “book town”, Johnson writes, “is simply a small town, usually rural and scenic, full of bookshops and book-related industries”. An introduction to 45 of the world’s best book towns, this beautifully-designed hardback is part guidebook, part social history, with each entry accompanied by extensive images which showcase the place of books in the life of each town. Among the locations celebrated are Montereggio in Italy, where books have been sold since the 1490s; the Australian town of Bowral, where former resident PL Travers created Mary Poppins; and Paju Book City in South Korea, where every single building is dedicated to making, publishing, selling and promoting Korean books. Often – as in Wigtown in Scotland – the tourism potential of such towns has helped regenerate declining communities by providing sustainable employment. “Becoming Scotland’s book town has put us back on the map and given people a reason to come here,” says one bookshop owner. As every reader will attest, “sometimes you need more than just one book, more than just one bookshop. Sometimes you need a whole book town.”

Freya McClements

Travelling with Ghosts by Shannon Leone Fowler

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £8.99

Shannon Fowler’s fiance Sean was killed by a box jellyfish sting while they were on holidays in Thailand (there were no warnings of highly venomous jellyfish and officials initially tried to put his death down to “drunk drowning”). This memoir of love and grief is her response to that tragedy. As a marine biologist whose grandfather was an oceanographer, a love and knowledge of the ocean was deeply ingrained in her from childhood but she couldn’t bear to be near the ocean afterwards. Instead she travelled alone to eastern Europe, in the autumn and winter, to places where English wasn’t spoken and tourists were rare. The narrative zigzags back and forth between those travels, memories of their loving relationship and flashbacks to the days immediately after Sean’s death. Her travels taught her “that real tragedies don’t need to be redeemed; they need to be remembered” and that “the world isn’t full of Hollywood happy endings”. It’s a well-written, moving and at times intensely dark account – certainly not for the faint-hearted.

Brian Maye

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