Haiku Reviews

  • Haiku Review: The Blue Fox by Sjón

    Skuggabaldur hunts,

    is hunted, through the mountains.

    Snow falls and both die.

    Sjón is Iceland’s best known contemporary author, widely read in English translation and celebrated for his weird, fairy-tale-esque, and often experimental fiction that blends the concerns of global society with Icelandic history and folk culture. The Blue Fox (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2013; trans. by Victoria Cribb), originally published as Skugga-Baldur in Icelandic, is a short novel just over a hundred pages that takes place in the snowy mountains of 19th century Iceland. It concerns a gruff, unkind reverend who goes off hunting a legendary skuggabaldur, lit. a “shadow baldur” but probably better translated as a “shadow cat,” a baldur being the offspring of a cat and a fox in Icelandic folklore. The skuggabaldur in turn hunts the reverend. Meanwhile, a farmer and amateur botanist living near the same village as the reverend is grieving the loss of his adopted daughter, a lady with Down’s syndrome who had previously been enslaved on a Dutch ship.

    I don’t have much to say about that novel, which is one of the few I’ve read to depict a character with Down’s syndrome and to do so in a historical setting, diving into the treatment of disabled people in Icelandic history that makes the reader aware of just how complicit able-bodied society is in the creation of a the concept that certain lives aren’t “worth” living. Sjón does this with tact and historical realism, and does it well. I find the story of the farmer/botanist and his daughter ten times more interesting than that of the reverend and his hunt for the skuggabaldur, though the purpose of the hunt, when revealed at the end, makes the whole otherwise boring scenario worthwhile.

    The Blue Fox is not a novel I’d necessarily recommend except to those interested in Iceland or in how a contemporary author weaves together historical fiction and folklore—at that, the novel succeeds very well and would be instructive for those looking to do similar work. The novel is also expertly translated and the manipulation of time and perspective are interesting in their own right for those who appreciate formal play.

  • Haiku Review: Whisper by Chang Yu-Ko

    Why, Minako, why?

    The ghosts of history kill.

    Horror from Taiwan.

    Taiwanese doctor-turned-writer Chang Yu-Ko’s debut novel Whisper (trans. by Roddy Flagg and published in English by Honford Star, an indie publisher devoted to bringing Asian fiction to the Anglophone market) is a powerhouse ghost story that explores the complex, often violent layers of Taiwanese history from Chinese colonization of Indigenous Austronesian peoples like the Bunun, Japanese imperial control in the early twentieth century, and Taiwan’s rapid industrial and economic growth in the twenty-first century. Chang tracks the unfolding horror with a gritty sense of realism that pays equal attention to difficult emotion and the shittiness of poverty in urban Taiwan.

    Whisper is eerie from the get go, occasionally terrifying in its use of horror tropes drawn largely from the J- and K-horror cinematic traditions (Chang expertly handles the transposition of filmic techniques to prose narrative), and illuminates a century of Taiwanese history and its social and economic struggles. I can’t recommend this novel enough for what it is, but also what it promises for Chang and the increasing number of East Asian horror novels entering the Anglophone market (see Pyun Hye-young’s The Hole or Mariko Koike’s The Graveyard Apartment for excellent recent examples).

    A full review is forthcoming in World Literature Today in early 2022.