Claire Kohda

Who is telling the truth in Kate Reed Petty’s True Story?

This debut novel, which opens with ‘a high- school lacrosse party in 1999 and the rumour of a sexual assault,’ is billed as one story told in four different genres: memoir, horror, noir and thriller. It even has four covers. There is a reason for this, as Kate Reed Petty explains in an author’s note:

Spirit of place | 4 April 2019

In 1923, an earthquake with a magnitude of 9 struck Tokyo and Yokohama. A huge area of Tokyo burned. But, Ueno Park, protected by the water of Shinobazu pond, survived unscathed, as did many of the people from around Tokyo who sought refuge there. Emperor Hirohito visited the park and its new homeless residents soon

A woman’s lot is not a happy one in Kim Jiyoung’s Born 1982

‘Buy pink baby clothes,’ Kim Jiyoung, the protagonist of this bestselling South Korean novel is told at the obstetrician’s surgery. Jiyoung’s mother responds: ‘It’s okay, the next one will be a boy.’ There are multiple births in this book. Births of girls are always met with disappointment, while those of sons are celebrated. When Jiyoung

The message in the blossom

Between 1639 and 1853, seeds and scions of flowering cherry trees travelled across Japan to Edo (present-day Tokyo). Each came from the most beautiful specimens of varieties of tree from the different principalities of Japan. From mountainous regions came the light pink yama-zakura; from the chilly climates of Hokkaido and northern Honshu came the crimson

Round North Korea with Michael Palin in rose-tinted spectacles

Michael Palin in North Korea, a two-part documentary in which the Python is given a tightly choreographed tour of that country, aired on Channel 5 last year. Palin dances with cheerfully drunk residents of the country on International Workers’ Day; picnics with his guide, a woman called So Hyang; plays catch with an inflatable globe

Haunted by the ghosts of Ramallah

On a rainy day in 1955, four-year-old Raja Shehadeh left school without putting his coat on. ‘I will soon be home, I thought, trailing the coat as it became heavy with rain.’ The walk was longer than he expected, or the rain heavier. He arrived back soaked through and fell ill with pneumonia. The journey

Brother sun and sister moon

At the very back of the eye is a cluster of cells called ipRGCs. They are cells that don’t depend on vision to sense light, and that keep the circadian rhythms of both sighted and non-sighted people in sync with the sun. Without them, we would not feel the pull of sleep at night; we

Time takes its toll

In Edo (now Tokyo), before the Meiji restoration, bells marked the beginning of each hour. The hours were named after the animals of the Chinese zodiac; the cow had its own hour, as did the mouse, the chicken, the horse, etc. In winter, daytime hours were shorter than in summer, and night hours were long.

Dialogue with the dead

When Yiyun Li first became a writer, she decided that she would leave behind her native language, Chinese, and never write or be published in it again. She has described this decision as being like a suicide. In languages, she suggests, we form our identities. Leaving one behind is a death of a version of

Treacherous Old Father Thames

While its shape is famous — prominent on maps of London and Oxford — the Thames is ‘unmappable’, according to Diane Setterfield, because it not only ‘flows ever onwards, but is also seeping sideways, irrigating the land to one side and the other’. In Once Upon a River, she redefines the boundaries that separate land

A lesson in natural selection

In a living room in Vineland, New Jersey, in the 1870s, a botanist and entomologist named Mary Treat studied the activities of carnivorous plants and reported her findings to her colleague, Charles Darwin (Treat is extensively referenced in Darwin’s Insectivorous Plants). Treat also corresponded with others — Charles Riley, Asa Gray — about these plants,

Trouble for Lucia

In 1988, James Joyce’s grandson Stephen destroyed all letters he had from, to or about his aunt Lucia Joyce, the novelist’s daughter. Many saw the destruction of documents pertaining to Lucia, who had spent the majority of her life in asylums and had been close to her father, as the destruction of keys to understanding

Going down in glory

In April 1945, the Japanese battleship Yamato — the largest and heaviest in history — embarked upon a suicide mission. The ship sailed to Okinawa, where a huge American assault was taking place. Under extensive enemy fire, it sank, as was expected, to the bottom of the Pacific. With it, it took 2,280 of its

Perturbed spirits

The events of this book take place where the world of the living and the world of the dead rub shoulders. Mama, 12-year-old Jojo’s grandmother, hears the voices — singing, talking, crying — of ghosts; Leoni, Jojo’s mother, sees her brother — ‘given, that he’s been dead 15 years now’ — sitting at the table,

The colour of fate

Before the narrator of The White Book is born, her mother has another child; two months premature, the baby dies ‘less than two hours into life’. The narrator is born in the dead baby’s place. ‘This life,’ she writes, in a passage directly addressed to her sister, ‘needed only one of us to live it.

A woman of some importance | 6 July 2017

It might seem unlikely that a Christian noblewoman could have had influence over a Muslim city in the 13th century, when women were considered by Muslim society as being ‘underlings without complete intelligence’ and by Christian society as ‘a fish hook of the devil… a source of evil… a treasury of filth’. However, Tamta —