Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Book Review: Flesh by Khanh Ha

by Khanh Ha
Pub: Black Heron Press

Flesh is a very dark and disturbing story and yet, still, suffused with hope like a sandy shore on the edge of a dank jungle shimmering under a full moon.  Set in colonial era Vietnam near the end of the 19th century, the story begins as a teenaged boy witnesses the beheading of his father.  Soon after he and his baby brother fall ill with smallpox.  He survives tho severely scarred.  His brother does not.

For the following several years he is focused on gathering the frayed and severed threads of his family into a new whole.  First he must retrieve his father's skull and place it with the body buried in the swampy soil behind their hut so the the spirit is not stuck in limbo. Later he begins a term of indentured service for the purpose of acquiring a dry and auspicious burial plot in which to move the bones of his father and brother.

Along the way he encounters friends, allies and enemies many of whom are not who they seem to be.  He is faced at every turn by the temptations of the flesh that threaten to distract him from his course.  The theme of the story implied by the title is expressed by the interplay between these fleeting allures and the enduring nature of the familial ties rooting his quest.  It is not just the one versus the other but how each influences the other across the generations and the years.  Our lives here on this earth are grounded in the flesh.  We are tied to it and to one another and to the past and the future by the demands and the desires of the flesh.

The prose often has the cadences and imagery of poetry and shifts between scenes having the surreal quality of dreams and those with fast-paced action.  Khanh Ha's meticulous attention to detail in every scene, his dedication to bringing all five of the senses into play is yet another way he engages with the theme and in this way draws the reader in and tethers them by the sinews and fibers of their very flesh.  This story grips and won't let go even after the last page is turned.

From the Publishers:

Set in Tonkin (now northern Vietnam) at the turn of the 20th century, Flesh tells the story of a boy who witnesses the execution, by beheading, of his father, a notorious bandit, and sets out to recover his father's head, and then find the man who betrayed his father to the authorities. A coming-of-age story of brutal self-awakening and also a tender love story, Flesh takes the reader into places, both dark and wonderful, in the human condition where allies are not always your friends, true love hurts, and your worst enemy can bring you the most solace.

Khanh Ha writes of the physical world with such sensuousness that he will make the reader's heart ache. At the same time, though Flesh is his first novel, his knowledge of the human psyche is that of a fully mature writer. The title refers to temptation-the temptation of the flesh. But it refers equally to the obligations of kinship, the connections between us and those to whom we are related, even if we would choose not to be.

What they are saying: 

"In this dark, violent, and poetic saga, with cinematic vignettes that make it read like a screenplay, characters are not who they seem. While this makes for a thrilling finale, what lingers . . . is Ha's descriptive prose."- Publishers Weekly
"Readers who enjoy epic sagas set in faraway lands will find absorbing satisfaction here."- Library Journal

"Read Flesh to lose yourself in a vividly-described colonial Vietnam, with its poverty and hopelessness, its people's industrious nature at work to better their lives and the lives of those dear to them, all wrapped up in beautiful prose." -Drey's Library

"Flesh, Khanh Ha's debut novel, is almost dreamlike. A dream in that early hours of a hot morning where you are still in between sleeping and waking up. Ha is a talented writer; he does a wonderful job setting the dark, yet poetic, mood and a fine job describing settings in vivid, smells, colorful imagery."- Seattle Post Intelligencer

FLESH brings Vietnam - at around the turn of the last century - to life. Life was hard, and this book does not spare us. The book opens with a scene . . . an execution. Ha's powers of description are good, and we are brought into the scene and witness this act. I would recommend this book. Part of what I (and many of you, I suspect) love about reading is being whisked off to an exotic place for an adventure. And Flesh fills the Bill!"- LibbyBooksBlog

"A lush, poetic tale, takes readers on a journey far beneath the surface of a land most have only glimpsed superficially in clich├ęd Hollywood films. . . .readers willing to venture off the beaten path to an unfamiliar land will find great pleasure exploring Flesh."- Book Reviews by Elizabeth White
"The story is a sensual one. . . . The prose of Khanh Ha's debut is laden with sensory details that pull readers into multi-dimensional scenes. . . . The outstanding element of this novel is the solid invitation extended to readers, to enter this world which Khanh Ha has created in Flesh."- Buried in Print

"This book was really something to read!. . . Somewhere along the way, it broke my heart. . . . The author did not sugar coat this story one bit! It is so unlike anything I have ever read. . . . It blew my mind towards the end!" -Mary Bearden ,Mary's Cup of Tea Blog

"Unique. The ending was amazing. . . . Ha has the writing skills to make the reader imagine every scene he sets, each mood, every setting. The prose felt poetic at times. Author Khanh Ha is truly a talented writer. I enjoyed the novel and it sits on my shelf as a DARN GOOD READ."- Reading Rendezvous Reviewz

"The realism of the book certainly made an impression on me. . . . Ha is a master at detailed descriptions to the point that you can see it happening the way the author intended you to. The brutality in the book was descriptive but not to the point that I had to "look away."-Ruth Hill, My Devotional Thoughts

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.

Visit the author at:

Come back on January 25 for a Guest Post from Khanh Ha on the topic of Techniques of Fiction Writing.

Follow the blog tour for more reviews, giveaways, author interviews and guest posts:

2 tell me a story:

Khanh Ha 1/16/2013 5:27 PM  

Thank you, Joy, for a gracious review. What you captured from the book means much to me that others might get a chance to experience it themselves.

Teddy Rose 1/16/2013 8:52 PM  

I'm so glad you enjoyed Flesh as much as I did! I loved it!

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