Author: K-Ming Chang
Genre: Magical Realism
Bestiary is the story of three generations of Taiwanese American women, narrated in alternating chapters by Daughter, Mother and Grandmother, and woven with myths and stories from Taiwanese folklore.
One day, Mother tells Daughter the story of Hu Gu Po, a tiger spirit who longed to have a woman’s body and eat children. Soon after, Daughter wakes up with a tiger tail; holes dug in their backyard start to spit out letters from her grandmother; and she slowly falls for another girl, Ben, as they translate the letters together and find out about Daughter’s ancestors and their stories.
I wish I could give a better summary of this story, but it’s honestly so weird that I just don’t know how to do it.
A closer look
I don’t know what happened with this book. The synopsis sounded interesting: I do love some generational family drama and if you sprinkle in a little bit of fantasy, that’s the perfect recipe for a possible new favourite. But the more I think about this book, the more I don’t understand.
The writing style is my biggest issue with it. It’s very lyric, full of metaphors and similes and scenes that feel more like lucid dreams than anything else. It was hard to follow the story; I like pretty writing, but this is on a whole new level and way too much for me. I struggled to understand what I was reading at times, to the point where I was forced to go back and read the same sentence or paragraph over and over again. It felt pretentious, and while it probably works wonders in poetry, it made reading feel like a chore for me.
The letters from Grandmother add a new level of hard-to-understand. They were borderline unintelligible to me. Truncated sentences, words thrown in seemingly at random, weird spacing and total absence of punctuation made it so that half of what was said in those passages flew right over my head. And I know English is not my first language and that influences my ability to understand, but I don’t think this was the case with this book. I understood every single word I read, and every sentence, but I just couldn’t find a meaning behind the words. If somebody has read this, please let me know if it’s just me.
And if all of that didn’t make the experience challenging enough, there’s a weird fascination with bodily functions and fluids that becomes almost disturbing at times. I don’t mind that if the point is to show without filters the gritty and hard way the characters live, but it came to a point where it felt like it was just trying to be edgy or something. I can’t even say it was for shock value, because it’s done so often and insistently that you just come to expect another mention of spit, faeces, vomit, piss and the like every few pages. I’m sorry, but it’s a big no from me.
So, after all I’ve said, you could think that I hated this book. Well, the truth is, I didn’t. I thought I did right after I finished it, and at times even while I was reading it, but it’s been a week since I closed it and I keep going back to it to try and unpack what I read. Am I just pissed that I didn’t understand it? Possibly. Do I think there was a meaningful story under all that hard-to-follow writing? Oh, I’m sure of it. I am still kind of disturbed and weirdly fascinated by what this book did, and I don’t even know if it’s a good thing or a bad one.
To conclude this rambling “review”: I didn’t hate the book, I didn’t love the book. I’m sure it’s the perfect read for some people, but sadly I don’t think I’m one of those. While I can appreciate the effort it must take to write like this, I felt lost between the words and couldn’t really enjoy the experience, and that’s ultimately my goal when reading. I had hopes for this book, but it was a weird experience, and not one I’ll be ready to try again any time soon.
About the Author
K-Ming Chang is a poetry writer, and Bestiary is her debut as a novelist. I have to say, that was kind of evident in her writing style. I don’t think I will read her poetry, as that’s not really my cup of tea, but I’ll be waiting to see if she releases any more novels in the future, and I might just give them a try.