Yasuko Thanh, Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains

Some years ago, the Beer & Books gentlemen's monthly gatherings I participate in ended up split on Abraham Verghese's Cutting for Stone. Even though some guys felt quite positively about it, my somewhat mean-spirited review remains one of my favourites from this blog, and one member who refused to complete the first chapter was frankly insulting about the book. In short, some of us had a suspicion that readers bought into Verghese's book because they got to read a predictable, Western-focused novel while pretending they were getting the Real Exotic: that's on readers, not Verghese, but we felt the press/response didn't match the novel.

(Mind you, only a month later our most vociferous anti-Verghesan asked Steven Price, when he was kind enough to attend our discussion of his novel Into That Darkness, why Price hated his readers and was just so mean, so sadistic. Maybe it wasn't just Verghese.)

But what does this have to do with Yasuko Thanh, and Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains?

Unlike with Verghese's novel, I felt like Thanh gave us prolonged immersion here. MFotYM doesn't refer out consistently to a reality that's comfortable or comforting to a Western reader, and it's not about events or social structures that make much sense for a casual North American reader. The Hanoi Poison Plot of 1908 is obscure; the gender dynamics among characters are unexpected; the descriptions are oppressively detailed, though I suspect I'm not the only reader who loved the details (and the sense of detail) without generally feeling confident that I was quite grasping the total image that the details were part of. The novel was for Western readers, in that it was sold to the Penguin-Random House imprint Hamish Hamilton, as well as for diasporic readers (cf Naben Ruthnum), but its wonderful immersive machinery doesn't necessarily let you inside the represented world. You're immersed in the novel, not the world, even if you feel like you're in the world.

I suspect, too, that this slippage is behind at least some of the conflict out there among reviewers of Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains.

Now, I don't know Brett Josef Grubisic, who's a member of the English department at UBC, but he had some unkind things to say about this novel in the Vancouver Sun. After listing several anachronistic references and metaphors, he rises (before a damning-with-faint-praise last remark about Thanh's "artful eye") to this summary: "Struggling to navigate a vexing phrase of metaphors or unpack a needlessly complicated account of kin hue, a reader's attention necessarily withdraws from the portrait before them."

Carleigh Baker, also at UBC, I know a little bit from a very intense weekend-long climate-change writing workshop, plus I'm in the middle of her story collection Bad Endings. Her perspective is not Grubisic's, and her review in the Globe & Mail opens with a very different tone: "Yasuko Thanh's writing whips up a miasma of jasmine oil and incense and opium smoke, while remaining gauzy as tulle. Which is not to say the story is frivolous. Think of a shiv as opposed to a longsword."

Is it as simple as saying, as Coleridge might have meant in talking about a reader's need to suspend disbelief, that Baker just trusts Thanh, while Grubisic doesn't? These two reviews are more complex than these excerpts indicate, since most reviewers I appreciate show visible signs of self-doubt, but they're unusually clearly opposed to each other, and I think that's a direct consequence of the novel's approach and of readers' expectations:
  • Grubisic and some other readers seem to want Thanh to give them the represented world with both verisimilitude and accuracy.
  • Baker seems to think that this is impossible, and so she doesn't care even a little about all the things that Grubisic objects to ("Thanh's problematic narration is strewn with anachronisms," etc).
Grubisic's right in his factual critiques, certainly, and yet when it comes to impressions and reading experience, I'm pretty firmly Team Baker on this one (if not into "miasma of jasmine oil" territory).

Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains feels like a realist novel, and has strong historical anchors, but at heart it's not fully a realist work, and so the standards of realist fiction aren't the right ones to judge it by. It's not my favourite novel, but it's one I've kept thinking about, in spite of how little room I've had in my brain for fiction the last several months, and so it's one I'm definitely prepared to recommend.

As I told Yasuko Thanh when she came along to a recent Beer & Books meeting (the first female author to have done so!), my only genuine regret about this novel is the name: it rang to me of romance, of cartoony opium dens, of Verghesean exotica, though I didn't talk about that. If I'd known that the title referred to a self-consciously campy name that a would-be gang of poisoners was arguing about calling themselves, one of many possible names they were arguing about, and even they couldn't consistently get the right words in the right order, well, I would've read it much sooner.
Thanh in the punk band 12 Gauge Facial
(Disclosure: Yasuko Thanh used to live around the corner from me, and her kids used to go to the same school as my daughter but in different grades. Not sure we ever exchanged more than a couple of sentences, though. She's an intimidatingly cool punk singer, and looks it, and I am the opposite of that.)

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