The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-Mi Hwang
Translated by Chi-Young Kim, Illustrations by Nomoco
This Korean novella has been a huge bestseller and it’s easy to see why. For a start, the cover is divine, the book is physically lovely with French flaps, and Nomoco’s illustrations preface each chapter. All that before you get to the heart-warming story within.
Sprout is an ageing egg-laying hen who has never raised a chick of her own, her eggs have always been taken from her in the coop. When her egg-laying falters she is expelled from the coop, but the barnyard animals treat her with disdain, as they also do to a wild duck known as Straggler who has flown in.
Sprout escapes the yard – and thence the cooking pot – and sets out dreaming still of raising a chick. Then her prayers are answered – but in nature’s often cruel way. The weasel gets a bird and Sprout finds her nest with an egg still warm inside. She doesn’t know that it is the egg of Straggler’s mate, but her maternal instincts make her incubate it anyway. When the duck is born, she names him Greentop for his Mallard’s green head, and fusses over him as any mother hen would – but she realises that they are not the same – he needs to swim, fish and fly. With her stubby wings and non-webbed feet she can’t do any these things, just watch him pick them up naturally. Then, there’s always the weasel waiting for his opportunity…
Redolent of children’s nature stories like Charlotte’s Web or Selma Lagerlöf’s Nils Holgersson story (reviewed here at Shiny), this short but perfectly formed fable could be enjoyed by all ages but has been sucessfully targetted at adult readers. With the farmers in the background and the snooty barnyard animals there’s just enough of a hint of Animal Farm, Roald Dahl and nature taking its course to give the edge needed. Sprout is a wonderful caring mother, brave and loyal and she knows the meaning of sacrifice. Simply lovely. (9/10)
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Mãn by Kim Thuy
Translated from the French by Sheila Fischman
Vietnamese-Canadian author Kim Thuy’s story tells of one woman’s immigrant experience in a series of vignettes, some as short as half a page, a few expanding onto a second side.
In just 139 pages of these fragments behind another gorgeous cover, Mãn tells her life story – starting with her three mothers: the one who conceived her, the nun who brought her up, and Maman who adopted her and took her to Montreal. She marries the owner of a Vietnamese café, there is no real passion, yet he is a caring, good man and they will have children together. Mãn takes over cooking and the café evolves into a restaurant. She meets Julie who gets her a workshop then cookbook deal, TV spots and superchef stardom. It is on a promotional visit to Paris that she will meet Philippe and experience real love for the first time. In between, Mãn flashes back to her childhood in Vietnam and memories of her Maman who became a spy to survive there.
There are such riches in these pages, all told in calm and beautiful prose which, although it can be dreamy, leaves you in no doubt about Mãn’s underlying strength and passions and the descriptions of food are mouthwatering. A key word or phrase from each vignette translated into Vietnamese is highlighted in the margin adds to this novella’s great charm, but otherwise the translator’s great skill is invisibly realised. I feel rather inadequate trying to express my thoughts about this gentle story, so I’ll urge you to also read Susan Osborne’s review of this novel for Shiny – which made me buy the book. (9/10)
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Source: Own copies
Sun-Mi Hwang, The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly (Oneworld, 2013) Paperback, 144 pages. Buy at Amazon UK
Kim Thuy, Mãn (Clerkenwell Press/Profile Books, 2014) Paperback, 160 pages. Buy at Amazon UK.