A review by porge_grewe
Bestiary, by K-Ming Chang

challenging dark emotional funny lighthearted reflective sad tense medium-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? Character
  • Strong character development? It's complicated
  • Loveable characters? Yes
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes


 This is a difficult one to review. How do you rate such a well-crafted, interesting, good book which requires such a strong stomach to get through? Much of this book is unpleasant – deliberately and skilfully unpleasant – and that will put a lot of readers off. If you click with the style, however, or if you dial in to the point where it is no longer overwhelming, you will be rewarded with a thoughtful, funny, sad, and true book. 

Bestiary is about a lot of things. The points of view K-Ming Chang uses, following three generations of a family emigrating from Taiwan to the United States, provide a focus on family, bodies, love, and myth-making, and, through these, more varied discussion of warfare, domestic violence, abject poverty, queer love and experience, growing up, legacy, land and belonging, and all sort of other topics. Chang, or rather her characters, consider all these using a style which moves between a straightforward, child-like simplicity and poetic surrealism, often melding the two to provide a bizarre, child’s-eye-view of a mundane world, or perhaps a sober, adult view of a magical one. In many ways, this feels most like a book about magic. Not pretty magic, and not necessarily magic in which any of the protagonists actually want to engage, but magic nonetheless. It would put me in mind of a mix of Helen Oyeyemi’s What is Not Yours is Not Yours and Stephen Graham Jones’ Mongrels if Bestiary did not feel so much its own creation. 

A large part of this individual identity for Bestiary come from its view of the world. Chang renders the world as elements and animals and bodies – Different members of the family are salt or rivers or earth or birds or fish or tigers at various points and the physicality of bodies, their orifices, and the many and various fluids which those orifices dribble, leak, and squirt are fundamentally interwoven into their experience of the world, their histories, and each other. Again, this will be too much for some, perhaps many, readers, but it creates a truly human, animal way of being in the world in which the books more mythological and folkloric elements take shape and marinate. In that way, I have seen few more resonant depictions of childhood. 

Massive kudos also to Jinhwa Jang for making one of the most striking and fitting covers I have seen in a while. 

This is a grimy, beautiful, abrasive, feral, wise book and if you feel you have the constitution for it then I strongly recommend trying it out. 

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