Book Review: CITY OF ASH AND RED by Hye-Young Pyun

It’s hard to know what City of Ash and Red is really about, until the end, when you realize that the vagueness was the point. In it, an unnamed man works as a rat killer in his home country; when he is transferred to a branch office in District 4 of Country C, his life is plunged into chaos. Country C is consumed by a mysterious disease, its bureaucracy is unraveling, and its streets are full of garbage. Clouds of pesticide and antiseptic poison the air. Meanwhile, in his home country, his ex wife is brutally murdered–and the unnamed man becomes the primary suspect.

You’d think a novel about a man desperately trying to survive murder charges and a plague in a hostile foreign country would be tense, even thrilling. Unfortunately, City of Ash and Red is lethargic and confusing instead, not so much emotionally distant as entirely absent. It’s an admirable literary experiment in detachment and ennui, but ultimately a failed one. I didn’t enjoy this book at all.

You can read my full review below.


City of Ash and Red Cover
cover description: A smudgy gray background with dots of red that look like blood.

City of Ash and Red by Hye-Young Pyun (translated by Sora Kim-Russell)

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  • publisher: Arcade
  • publication date: November 6, 2018
  • length: 256 pages

Danger warnings are more common than actual danger. And yet when danger does finally strike, it does so without warning. That was why the man thought nothing of the quarantine notices and infectious disease prevention regulations posted all around the airport. He knew that the more caution signs there were, the less danger he was in.

–from City of Ash and Red by Hye-Young Pyun

Depersonalization, dehumanization, dissociation. Authoritarian governments, guerrilla warfare, gig economies. In a world where full personhood feels more precarious than ever, it’s not hard to see why authors are leaning into namelessness, facelessness, and purposelessness.

The protagonist of City of Ash and Red, Hye-Young Pyun’s second novel published in the U.S. after her award-winning thriller The Hole, is unnamed, referred to as “the man”; most of the people around him are also unnamed, or given only generic first names. Similarly, Pyun eschews place names in favor of placeholders: the unnamed man’s home country is simply called his home country; the country where he goes to work at the beginning of the novel is Country C, the city where he lives merely one of 16 unnamed major cities, his neighborhood known only as District 4.

The man, a rat killer, is transferred to work at an office in Country C. An unnamed, mysterious plague is spreading rapidly when the man arrives; it’s possibly just the common cold, but possibly much worse. Garbage coats the streets. Billowing, opaque clouds of antiseptic are constantly sprayed from trucks, convenient cover for every time the man needs to run away. The man doesn’t speak Country C’s language. (What language? It’s impossible to know.)

The man has a dog in his home country, whom he forgets to make arrangements for, despite knowing that he’s leaving for a 6 month to 5 year stay in Country C. He calls a former coworker and asks him to take the dog somewhere, anywhere; this coworker also happens to have just divorced the man’s ex-wife, also unnamed, and the two men loathe each other and this shared history. When the coworker goes to let out the dog, he finds the ex-wife in the man’s apartment, stabbed to death. The man is the suspect. The man has vague memories of a fight, of holding a dull knife, but he’s certain he didn’t kill his wife before he left for Company C. Or is he certain? And is she even dead?

All of these unknowns are bold and brave choices on the part of Pyun, who is terrific at evoking a sort of banal, bureaucratic dread. But despite its daring, or perhaps because of it, City of Ash and Red simply doesn’t work. It’s overburdened and muddy, so concerned with its own experimental concept that it forgets to tell a real story.

Pyun’s detached writing style (as translated by Sora Kim-Russell) throws up a pane of thickly frosted glass between the reader and the events of the story, making it impossible to fully care about what happens, because it’s nearly impossible to even know what’s really happening.

Tension builds and is abruptly punctured; the best and most vivid part of the novel, in which the man remembers his marriage to his ex-wife, which ended when he raped her, is followed almost immediately by the worst and most deadening part, in which the man lives in a sewer. Or maybe it’s a park? Maybe both? Who knows. I sure don’t.

There’s still plenty of thought-provoking stuff on offer in City of Ash and Red. Pyun writes particularly well about work, marriage, and the ways complacency in both can irrevocably and negatively affect our lives.

But thematic ambition can’t save City of Ash and Red from being a pretty awful reading experience. Even at a relatively short 256 pages, it feels interminable, and painfully bloated.

I don’t recommend City of Ash and Red, but I’m still looking forward to reading The Hole, and I’ll still be seeking out Pyun’s future work. This novel is a failure, but a very, very intriguing one. ★★☆☆☆

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I got my copy of City of Ash and Red from the library and was in no way compensated for this review.

I publish book reviews every Tuesday and Thursday.

*note: This review has been edited to reflect that Pyun is Hye-Young Pyun’s surname, not Hye-Young. I apologize for the error!

Friday Bookbag, 7.6.18

FridayBookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

I’m back after my restful hiatus (the surgery was a raging success!) and I’m ready to catch up on all the reading I’ve fallen behind on this month. These books have more than whet my appetite. Let’s dive in!


The Hole by Hye-Young Pyun (translated by Sora Kim-Russell)

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The Hole Cover

the premise: Ogi caused a car accident that killed his wife and left him severely disabled. As he reckons with intense grief and guilt, his mother-in-law begins acting strangely, causing him to question everything he thought he knew about his former life with his wife.

why I’m excited: This book was a massive success in Korea, and the English translation was a nominee for the 2017 Shirley Jackson awards. It’s a terrifying, novella-length thriller that’s apparently reminiscent of Stephen King’s Misery. Doesn’t that sound amazing? I’m in. (I’m also seriously excited about the state of Korean literature, since this book also sounds reminiscent of The Vegetarian by Han Kang, which I loved. I hope the success of these books spurs more translations into English.)

All the Ever Afters: The Untold Story of Cinderella’s Stepmother by Danielle Teller

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9780062798206the premise: It’s right there in the title: All the Ever Afters is the story of Cinderella’s stepmother. In this version, stepmother Agnes starts out as a serf and nursemaid to Ella, the beautiful, ethereal girl who will eventually become a princess. After Ella’s marriage, horrible rumors begin to spread about her childhood,  and Agnes fights to hold on to the real story.

why I’m excited: I’m not sure if any Cinderella-related story is actually “untold” at this point–it’s one of the most popular and most-adapted stories of all time–but this one caught my eye because it looks like it’ll dig deep on the misogyny and class politics that underpin the fairy tale. I hope it’s not too gritty, since I’ve gotten quite sick of Gregory Maguire-style retellings (which this is getting compared to), but I’m excited to give it a shot.

Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao

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Girls Burn Brighter Coverthe premise: Poornima and Savitha are best friends living in an impoverished Indian village, but when an act of staggering cruelty drives the two girls apart, Poornima is determined to be reunited with her best friend. She escapes an arranged marriage and travels the breadth of India and the world on her mission, uncovering startling secrets along the way.

why I’m excited: You know, this one could be hit or miss for me. I sometimes struggle with the kind of novel, like this one, that seems determined to expose the horrible underbelly of the world. But the focus on the girls’ friendship is a strong point in its favor, as are the extremely positive reviews the book has received. I’m hoping the pessimist in me is wrong and that the optimist in me finds the insides of this book to be as brilliant and striking as its cover design.

Cross Her Heart by Sarah Pinborough

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9780062856791the premise: Lisa is a single mother living a quiet life–too quiet, at least according to her daughter, Ava, who wishes to live a normal life with her secret boyfriend. Lisa’s friend Marilyn is concerned about Lisa’s isolation, but she has problems of her own. When a betrayal buried deep in Lisa’s past threatens to have terrible consequences in the present, the secrets these three women keep from each other become explosive–and devastating.

why I’m excited: I received this advance reader copy from the publisher (it doesn’t come out until September) and I am beyond excited for it. I’m a huge fan of literary thrillers, especially ones starring women. I also can’t get enough of the “dark secrets in her past” trope. This and Pinborough’s earlier novel, Behind Her Eyes, have gotten rave reviews from people like Stephen King; the buzz they’ve already generated in Pinborough’s native U.K. is astonishing. I can’t wait to lose an afternoon or two to this one.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!