From brooding, surrealist epics by the crafting hand of Murukami, to dark, noir thrillers between Manila and New York, to political hot potatoes that consider the state of contemporary China, this list of 10 award-winning books by Asian writers in the last 10 years is sure to have something up your alley.
Ilustrado | Miguel Syjuco
Through a lens of half-autobiography and half-cultural criticism, Miguel Syjuco’s award-winning novel makes a genuine attempt to appreciate the diversity and eccentricities of modern Manila and the fabric of the contemporary Philippines. The story itself—with its light shading of New York noir and American thriller—tells the story of a young writer’s apprentice tasked with the self-appointed mission of writing an account of his deceased master’s life. The action that follows takes readers on a journey of meta-criticism, which does well to entertain while asking some serious questions about the state of Filipino literature as a whole.
Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer | Cyrus Mistry
Heavy, hard-hitting and thoughtful at every turn, Cyrus Mistry’s Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer tells the tale of Phiroze Elchidana, the son of a celebrated Parsi priest living in Bombay who falls in love with the downtrodden daughter of a Zoroastrian corpse bearer. The compelling confrontation of societal echelons and social norms that ensues is a captivating consideration of contemporary Indian society, and, indeed, the identities of all minorities currently living on the margins. In 2014, Chronicle of a Corpse Bearer picked up the prestigious DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.
Three Sisters | Bi Feiyu
An intense and invigorating examination of personality and rampant individualism that’s set in the context of high-Communist China in the years of the Cultural Revolution, Three Sisters does well to draw its readers in with a plethora of storylines that touch on vice, sex, Machiavellian power plays and contemporary politics all at the same time. With its focus on female characters and their interactions with male patriarchs in the China all around them, the book continues on in the same vein as Feiyu’s other feminist works, while its general success was galvanized in 2010, when it garnered the prestigious Man Booker Prize for Asian Literature.
The White Tiger | Aravind Adiga
A literal manifestation of the ongoing dialectic between the old and the new India, Aravind Adiga’s debut novel of 2008 chronicles the life and travails of young Balram Halwai, who moves through the strata of the Hindu caste system to become a product of the country’s new capitalist drive. Along the way there are episodes of despair, immorality and desperation to boot, painting a visceral picture of India’s struggling identity as it enters the modern age. Quite rightly, The White Tiger was met with great critical acclaim, was high on the New York Times bestseller list and even touts that much-coveted Man Booker Prize.
The Garden of Evening Mists | Tan Twan Eng
Following on from his first novel (The Gift of Rain, 2007) in much the same style, Tan Twang Eng offers up this masterfully-sculpted narrative with all his trademark mysticism and esoteric turns of phrase. In a setting that could easily be the subject of an ink-and-wash painting by the ancient master, Sesshu Toyo, the reader is plunged into a retrospective unraveling of 1950s Malaya, as the British colonialists vie for control of the misty highlands with the Chinese communists. The impetus to action is the respective exile and animosity from and for Japan of the central characters, which slowly evolves into a redemptive dynamic, manifesting through art and the romantic serenity of nature all around.
Goat Days | Benyamin
Originally published in Benyamin’s native Malayalam back in 2008, this striking, compelling and staunchly topical story was still making waves in 2013 and 2014, as it emerged in English translations and paperback editions. After claiming the Kerala Sahithya Academy Award in 2009, it subsequently found its way onto the long list for the Man Asian Literary Prize and then the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, hailed for its visceral examination of life as a migrant worker in Saudi Arabia and all the oppression, grief, suffering and bitterly comedic realities it entails.
1Q84 | Haruki Murukami
While so far this one’s only garnered long list nominations on the Asian Man Booker Prize (2011), and a second-place prize on Amazon’s best books of the year rundown, it’s certainly worth a mention as the cornerstone magnum opus of Murukami’s curious and indelibly Japanese surrealist style. Short of attempting a plot breakdown of the nebula of weird and wonderful storylines that runs throughout, suffice to say that the three voluminous editions that form the saga complete, come with all the eccentric, psychedelic, and disconcertingly alien phenomena you’d expect of the former Franz Kafka Prize recipient.
Please Look After Mother | Shin Kyung-sook
Copies of this emotional, retrospective consideration of motherly life flew off the shelves in South Korea in the months following publication in 2009, and by 2012, the work had garnered the prestigious Man Booker Prize for Asian Literature. The story is a heart-wrenching and exacting tale of family sacrifice and love, and tells the story of stroke-victim and dedicated matriarch, Park So-nyo, who becomes disorientated on a city train and is separated from her family. The action then moves to a series of recollections on the dedication of So-nyo to her family, as they search for her amidst the heady and daunting streets of downtown Seoul.
The Boat to Redemption | Su Tong
Famed as the writer behind the Oscar-nominated Raise the Red Lantern film of 1993, Su Tong has risen to become one of China’s leading avant-garde authors. In The Boat to Redemption he crafts a delicate but hard-hitting tale that deals with the pitfalls of power and superstition in 20th century China. The narrative tells the story of a father-and-son duo who shun public life for a drifting existence. Identity is the key theme and a constant desire to discover one’s identity in an ever-changing world.
Wolf Totem | Jiang Rong (Lü Jiamin)
Bursting at the seams with various awards and accolades (including a nomination in the 21st Century Ding Jun Semiannual, a listing in the Yazhou Zhoukan weekly and the prestigious Man Asian Literature award), this compelling narrative draws on the author’s own experiences of the Mongolian Steppe, where he went during the tumultuous years of China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. With glimpses of Turgenev-esque Hunting Sketches and White Fang’s visceral reduction of the human condition, the tale unravels to produce a sort of utopian vision that’s eventually destroyed by the onslaught of a mechanized China—essential reading for any young contrarian.
By Rich Francis