Three Notable Novels from East Asia

Travel is one of the most missed activities during the pandemic, and the lowering Covid positivity rate is certainly giving us hope to resume international travel – soon, not quite yet! For now, we can continue to quench our thirst with videos and travel guides, I suppose. And, if you haven’t, what about reading a few popular novels from the countries that you want to visit? I know, you may question how much fiction will actually tell us about the real world, but I would say fiction is arguably one of the best channels to immerse ourselves into a different culture. A well-researched novel can tell us the most intricate nuances of another culture: their people, their life, their ideologies, their desires, and their dreams – the hidden world that we can’t easily access when we do a two-week or three-week travel.

I will start with East Asia in this post. There are so many great books from this part of the world, and I wish I could include more titles, but let’s start with three that I know.

Book cover of The Three-Body Problem: by Liu, Cixin

China

The Three-body Problem by Cixin Liu

The three-body problem is unsolvable, “as the motion of the bodies quickly becomes chaotic” (Britannica). In this first installment of a trilogy, the Hugo Award winning author asks the most classic and unanswerable question in hard sci-fi: “What would it mean for the human race to come in contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence?”

Because of the elaborate world building, the novel is a bit slow to start, but once it gets up and running, the thrilling suspense grips readers all the way to the end. The work offers many interesting “lengthy passages of technical exposition about everything from quantum mechanics to artificial intelligence.” (NPR) While the unique historical backdrop (Cultural Revolution) requires some effort to chew on, Liu skillfully pushes the moral dilemmas beyond specific nationalities or abstract physics, and asks: “Is science truly objective and provable, or is it simply the best we can do given our limited understanding of four dimensions?” (Rick Riordan)

Book cover of Norwegian Wood by Murakami, Haruki

Japan

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Set in the troubled times of the 1960s’ Japanese student movement, this elegiac, coming-of-age classic became a national hit in Japan after its publication in 1987 and soon received internationally acclaim. Murakami’s “North American” writing style may have helped popularizing this book worldwide, but in my opinion, while some portrayal in the novel is time and culture specific, the examination of many topics that concerned young people is universal across generations and cultures. From exploring sex and love to lamenting the hypocrisy in society and the ultimate existential pain – death, these themes are still relevant today and resonate across continents.

Book cover of Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Nam-Joo, Cho

South Korea

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo

Born in 1982 and given the most common name for Korean baby girls, Jiyoung is the “millennial everywoman” whose role is defined by the male characters around her. But she has one more trouble – she impersonates the voices of other women. When she was asked to seek help for this psychosis, the narrative is taken over by her male psychiatrist’s medical records, with charts and footnotes, in strict chronological order, just as dull and claustrophobic as Jiyoung’s world.

This hotly debated bestseller in South Korea was published coinciding with the country’s #MeToo movement. Cho sharply “reveals gender inequality in all parts of the South Korean society, from the privileging of male children to workplace discrimination and harassment.” (Guardian)

About Heather

Heather is the Librarian II, Literacy and Readers' Advisory, with the Vaughan Public Libraries. Her job is to connect leisure readers and aspiring writers with the endless space of imagination and creation through words in all forms.