By Jasmine Aldridge and Natalia Alvarez
Not to be Overlooked introduces a variety of wonderful but lesser-known books to assist readers in finding their next great reads. This week’s column covers a review of Concerning My Daughter by Kim Hye-jin and Chlorine by Jade Song.
Concerning My Daughter by Kim Hye-jin
Review by Jasmine Aldridge
They say that a mother’s love is unwavering, yet for many children sometimes the harshest judgement comes from the ones who love them the most. From the perspective of a mother set in her vision of an “acceptable” life path, bestselling Korean writer Kim Hye-jin’s novel Concerning My Daughter follows a long journey of anger, confusion and acceptance in a tale that bridges the gap between society’s pressures and the love that is held within. Captivating yet confronting, the life of each character strikes a chord in a unique way, and Hye-jin expertly navigates the emotional ups and downs of family relationships and self-acceptance.
From the first page turn, Hye-jin considers the nuances and implications of seemingly mundane conversations that prompt a deeper consideration of internalised prejudices. When the unnamed narrator is asked by her daughter to allow her and her girlfriend Lane to move in due to financial instability, we get a glimpse into the anxious conscience of a mother as she juggles the urge to help her daughter and her resentment of her life choices. Eventually, the mother accepts, and so the narrative begins. Quickly, we learn that the mother works with vulnerable dementia patients, that her daughter is a lecturer at a university and that their relationship is far from stable. Hye-jin delves deep into the precariousness and instability of each character’s situation, trailing the reader expertly through the mother’s internalised biases during her conversations with Jen, an elderly dementia patient she confides in, and through her reactions to Lane living under her roof.
The novel oscillates enticingly between a consistent internal perspective of the mother’s thoughts and the all-too-tangible changes happening in the external world. Importantly, Jamie Chang’s thoughtful translation brilliantly conveys the nuances in conversation and tonal shifts that run throughout the novel as the reader becomes familiar with the mother’s distinctive voice. When her daughter joins protests over unfair dismissal based on sexuality, the mother is simultaneously battling to help Jen remain in respectable care, eventually bringing her into her own home to comfort her at the end of her life. During this time of upheaval, glimpses of empathy and acceptance start to shine through as the mother witnesses the tender care Lane provides as they all try to share a space. Can the mother’s prejudices be dissolved by a kind hand? Hye-jin leaves this as yet to be seen, reminding us that cemented expectations of traditional binaries are not so easily dismantled. Nonetheless, what this novel does offer is a confronting and honest representation of generational differences through a character who, although she does not transform completely, takes the first small step towards change.
A novel filled with breathtaking skill and captivating characters, if you enjoy translated fiction that unwaveringly stares into your soul, then this book certainly demands your attention.
Chlorine by Jade Song
Review by Natalia Alvarez
I have always been a firm believer that horror novels should not be confined to just the Halloween season. Sometimes it takes more than one month to finish the extensive list of dark and spooky stories you've been needing to read. I am here to make this even more difficult with a recommendation of one of my favourite recent reads, Jade Song’s horror-filled coming-of-age novel Chlorine. Described as being “in the vein of Pisces and The Vegetarian,” artist and writer Jade Song promises a debut novel filled with mermaids, body horror, teen sapphic romance and the Chinese American experience.
As the novel opens, we meet our narrator as an adult. She takes us back in time to her seventeen-year-old self; a competitive swimmer Ren Yu. She pushes her body to its limits every day with the desire that eventually she will be scouted by an Ivy League school and finally make her team, her coach and her family happy. Ren has always felt at home in the water, remembering the mermaid stories she grew up with and how she wished to live among them. As her school year progresses, Ren must deal with all the complexities of being a teenage girl as well as the pressures of being an overexerted athlete. Faced with failure, isolation and increasing psychological distress, Ren slips further into herself and the mermaid fairy tales she grew up loving begin to spill into her reality. After a particularly sad loss at a swim meet, Ren’s mentality comes to an all-time low leading to Ren’s painful but inevitable metamorphosis.
At its core, this is a novel about a girl who has been let down by all the people in her life. It is a cautionary tale that is as complex as it is disturbing. Jade Song keeps readers interested from beginning to end with the knowledge that Ren has made it out of this situation and now lives separate from the rest of humanity - with the exception of letters she receives via a message in a bottle from her old best friend and suspected love interest. Chlorine packs such a punch for a novel that sits at only 256 pages and asks complex questions that make for a read that feels like nothing I have ever read before.
This is a novel that has it all, and while I found many of the themes to be expected considering its topic, I would still recommend checking the content warnings Song has included in the author's note as some can be triggering. I would recommend this book to all who like mermaids and horror and I cannot wait to see what Jade Song does next.