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What to read now: Saneh Sangsuk, Birgit Weyhe and Khuê Pham

We review Saneh Sangsuk's sensitive take on ecological disaster, Birgit Weyhe's engrossing biography of Priscilla Layne and Khuê Pham's compelling narrative of multi-generational migration.

The Understory

Saneh Sangsuk

The Thai village of Praeknamdang used to be a jungle: soon it will be a resort, or maybe a cluster of high-rise condominiums. The only person who remembers the forest is Luang Paw Tien, the 93-year-old local Buddhist monk. Luckily, he is also a master storyteller, regaling the village’s children each night with tales of his encounters with elephants, fish, monkeys – and tigers.

Man and tiger are enemies, here, but in a jungle that resists human presence, the boundaries between these two species of hunters begin to break down. The translation by Berlin-based Mui Poopoksakul has a haunting rhythm with the irresistible pull of a great campfire story. Yet there’s more here than just a rollicking tale: Saneh Sangsuk unselfconsciously treats major themes of our moment – the anthropocene, ecological disaster, the human-animal binary – with a deftness that makes its thoughtfulness all the more impressive. – Mathilde Montpetit

Rude Girl

Birgit Weyhe

Who gets to tell whose story? This question has been subject to seemingly endless debate in recent years. This month, though, a remarkably original and good-hearted contribution appears in the form of Rude Girl. This engrossing graphic biography tells the story of German Studies professor Priscilla Layne, a Black American woman of Caribbean parentage who had to navigate racism, classism, misogyny and sexual violence on her way to finding herself in the left-skinhead scene of Chicago (who knew!) and then academia.

Most unique is the way that Weyhe – who has been criticised for cultural appropriation in the past –brings her subject’s voice into the text, making revisions based on feedback and including long stretches of present-day Layne providing corrections and reflections. The book’s expressionistic style is perfectly suited to the two women’s grand experiment in mutuality; the English version takes this collaboration to the next level – it was translated by Priscilla Layne herself. – Alexander Wells

Brothers and Ghosts

Khuê Pham

Khuê Pham’s debut novel, Brothers and Ghosts covers a huge amount of territory in a relatively quick 261 pages as it traces a Vietnamese family’s saga, ping-ponging across decades and between Berlin, South Vietnam and “Little Saigon” in Orange County, California to unpack the generational reverberations from the Vietnam War. The action kicks off after a mysterious message from an uncle nudges the protagonist, Kiêu (like Pham, a journalist in contemporary Berlin), to finally pursue answers to her family’s many mysteries.

It’s an ambitious novel, with a compelling narrative and generally snappy quicked-pace plotting. Sometimes the pace is too quick, however, as the novel’s scope and interweaving storylines can leave little room for fully fleshing out its characters, drilling into tense and tangled relationships, or allowing the revelations to fully distil. Pham seems to have much to say that’s interesting – about diaspora, the immigrant experience, family dynamics – that I wished for a bit more space for it to unwind. – Bryn Stole