Flesh by Khanh Ha

Flesh by Khanh Ha is dark and dreamlike.  Tai’s coming of age story is fraught with trauma and hardship, but he maintains his determination and remains grounded despite the beheading of his father at the hands of his granduncle in Northern Vietnam.  Ha has woven a dark love story within Tai’s trip through adolescence that takes him to Hanoi and other places as he searches for the man who turned in his bandit father to the authorities.  Part dark adventure, Tai is thrown into the world of Vietnam’s opium dens and indentured servitude as his mother barters him away to pay for a safe, final resting place for his father and younger brother.

“He could not tell which one was my father’s as he passed under the banyan tree.  Those were the same heads he saw in the rattan baskets, but now they had no eyes, only black sockets with grubs crawling in them.  He spotted a hole bored under each jaw, and a rod was pierced through it to the top of the skull and into a limb.  The heads looked out in different directions, and in the early morning light they bore a pinched look neither of hurt nor sorrow.”  (page 18)

Each chapter reads like a short story, a memory recalled by Tai about his journey and the impact is at once immediate and lasting.  Readers are piggybacking on Tai’s shoulders as he runs through the jungles of Tonkin and the streets of Hanoi as the dark, mysterious Frenchman chases him and he bumps into Xiaoli, a young Chinese girl working in an opium den.  Ha’s prose is poetic as it paints the scene in which you can smell the opium, see and hear the brown of Tai’s village and the busy streets of Hanoi, and feel the delirium of smallpox or his pulse quicken as he begins to fall in love.

“The bank was steep.  I was a salamander, half naked, creeping on the clay soil, seizing knotty vines that bulged across the incline.  The dark odor of sundered organics.  Lying flat on the ridge of the bank, I felt unusually warm, and then a suffocating heat hazed my eyes.”  (page 42)

Tai’s journey is through darkness and fear, and Ha raises questions of nurture vs. nature — whether we are only who we are because of who our parents were or the circumstances in which we were raised.  From the atmosphere to the myths and legends, Ha generates a novel that will capture readers from the beginning, but there are times when the dialogue is a bit trite and wooden.  However, as there is little dialogue per se and that dialogue is often between characters that know little of the other’s language, it can be forgiven.

Flesh by Khanh Ha is a stunning debut novel that showcases the writer’s ability to become a young male narrator whose view of the world has been tainted by his life circumstances and tragedy, but who has the wherewithal to overcome and become a better man.  Through a number of twists and turns, Tai must come to terms with the loss of his father, his obligations as the remaining male member of his family to care for his mother, and the secrets that his culture and family hide.


About the Author:

Khanh Ha was born in Hue, the former capital of Vietnam. During his teen years he began writing short stories which won him several awards in the Vietnamese adolescent magazines. He graduated from Ohio University with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism. Flesh is his first novel. He is at work on a new novel.

Visit the author at his website.


Click for Tour Stops

This is my 46th book for the 2012 New Authors Challenge.


  1. The passages that you’ve quoted do show off his evocative use of language. I like the fact that the sentences are of varied lengths and force you to take in each image separately. Not that they are always the kind of images which you want to dwell on, but it’s nicely done all the same.

  2. Harvee Lau says

    I have just finished reading a captivating novel of Vietnam by Vincent Lam, The Headmaster’s Wager, and I’d love to read this one as well. Will be looking for it. Thanks for the great review!

  3. I agree that the idea of the separate chapters being like short stories is a good one. It sounds like a powerful novel, but I can imagine that it might not be an easy read.

  4. It sounds like this book has an interesting structure with some intense subjects.

  5. I thought this book was paranormal based on the cover, but glad I was wrong. Sounds like an intense story, and I like the idea of it being dark and dreamlike. Great review!

  6. By the time their books are published, most writers have felt cold about them. If there’s hope, then you hope ‘for sound, intelligent criticism . . . as writing is the loneliest of all trades.’ [Hemingway] Especially when a reviewer can capture the spirit of your book, what permeates your soul then is the kind of elation like falling in love.

    I’ve stated this to another reviewer, and I’m saying it here again: I hope that readers would also find in it, besides all the sensuous descriptions, a valuable read on history lesson and moral obligations of kinship that brings together the broken lives of the demimonde, and the bruised, fallen lives of some others. (Among them the boy, psychologically damaged by his family tragedy, who no sooner gets his life together than falls in love with a mysterious girl and finds his life in peril.) What you captured from the book means much to me that others might get a chance to experience it themselves.

    Thank you, Serena, for your delightful review.

    • You are welcome. There is so much to discuss here in this novel. I really found there to be hope for Tai and his family, but was really just enamored with all the sensual darkness that surrounded them. I was captivated from page one.

  7. The cover is so creepy!!

    I can’t imagine how a child would feel if his mother bartered him off. I had to read that line twice because it shocked me when I read it the first time.

    • I wasn’t too keen on the cover. In a way she barters him off, but she does consult him about it and its more of a mutual decision, but still.

  8. Wow, this sounds like a heart breaking and tragic story.

  9. I love the way you write about the books you read. Not sure if this is one that I would gravitate towards but I have a much better understanding of what it is about.

    • I really enjoy books that take me away and I have a tendency to enjoy books set in Vietnam. I’m interested in the culture there. Thanks for the compliment, though I’m never sure my reviews are getting across what I want them to.

  10. That’s really cool that each chapter reads like a short story — I always like interconnected short story collections, so I’m sure this works quite well in Flesh.

    I’m so glad you liked the book! Thanks for being on the tour.

    • I really enjoyed the vignettes that told his story. Tai is a great narrator and character. It was such a good, absorbing read. And there is so much to sink your teeth into. It would be a great book club pick.


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