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Five More to Go: Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise [in The Booklist Reader]

Trust Exercise by Susan Choi

“That whole thing about fiction not being the truth is a lie,” one character admonishes another in Susan Choi’s fifth (and finest) novel. Returning to the multilayered teacher-student power struggles that were seared into My Education (2013), Trust Exercise immediately puts readers on alert; the two words will appear four times as a title – first, as the title of the novel itself, and next as the repeated title of the book’s three sections. But despite being a reference to a soul-baring acting exercise, “trust,” in Choi’s hands, has little correlation to truth.

The first “Trust Exercise” section introduces Sarah and David, two 15-year-old students at a suburban performing-arts high school. They’re precariously entangled with each other and overseen (and manipulated) by their magnetic theater teacher, Mr. Kingsley.

“Trust Exercise” number two picks up on page 132, 14 years later – and reveals “Trust Exercise” number one to be the first 131 pages of Sarah’s newly published novel. Page 132 is also where Sarah’s former best friend, Karen, stopped reading said novel. What happened (or not) thus far gets deconstructed, then expanded, culminating in a series of dramatically orchestrated reunions.

“Trust Exercise” number three will render all that came before it unreliable, exposing tenuous connections between fiction, truth, lies, and, of course, people. Literary deception rarely reads this well.

Beyond the more obvious examples of novels with (in)famous unreliable narrators – think Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi – below you’ll find five intriguing titles populated with untrustworthy but undeniably enigmatic protagonists. Their creators, like Korean American Choi, also share Asian roots.


A Carnivore’s Inquiry by Sabina Murray

Murray’s follow-up to her PEN/Faulkner-winning short story collection, The Caprices, deals with a different kind of violence (the cover’s depiction of Géricault’s “The Raft of the Medusa” should be a clue). At 23, Katherine Shea already knows too much about cannibalism, art, literature, and … well, some of the cruelest details about (in)humanity. With such a darkly irresistible – albeit untrustworthy – narrator, Carnivore becomes a mind-boggling exploration of the unexpected that will leave you scratching your head while simultaneously wanting more.


A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif

Pakistani dictator General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s sudden death in a mysterious 1988 plane crash remains unsolved. Hanif, once part of the Pakistani air force and now a British expat, cleverly presents a riotous fictional version of how it all might have happened. Air Force Junior Officer Ali Shigri is still grieving the suicide of his hero father, who was one of Zia’s top commanders. Arrested for possibly helping his roommate go AWOL, Shigri proves to be wily and unreliable, but his charm is addictive as the tragic and wicked – and entertaining and shocking – plot unfolds.


The Good Son by You-Jeong Jeong and translated by Chi-Young Kim

The opening sentence – “The smell of blood woke me.” – gives way to a young man discovering his mother’s freshly murdered corpse. He’s gone off his epilepsy medications again and has trouble remembering, but he’s determined to figure out what happened. Initially, the whodunit and howdunit seem obvious. What’s left to solve is the whydunit. The manipulations multiply as details of that horrific night are meted out, interspersed with glimpses of what happened before, what happens after – and the inevitable growing body count. Award-winning translator Chi-Young Kim ensures that internationally best-selling Jeong is introduced to English-speaking readers with chilling precision, even as the protagonist insists, “After all, being true to life isn’t the only way to tell a story.”


The Hole by Hye-Young Pyun and translated by Sora Kim-Russell

When Oghi wakes from his coma, the world doesn’t align with his last memories. He survived a car accident, but his wife is dead, and he’s completely paralyzed. Oghi is parentless, childless, and 47, with few friends among his colleagues at the university. His widowed mother-in-law is now “his only family and legal guardian.” In her care, silently trapped in his damaged body, Oghi loses all control of what happens around, to, and because of him. As he remembers more about the accident, his mother-in-law learns intimate details about her deceased daughter’s life. The facade of their happy union cracks and crumbles, with terrifying results.


Malice by Keigo Higashino and translated by Alexander O. Smith, with Elye Alexander

Just before Kumihiko Hidaka was to move to Vancouver, he’s found dead. The last to see the best-selling novelist alive were his second wife, Rie, and his childhood friend, Osamu Nonoguchi. Rie went ahead to the hotel where Hidaka was to join her. Meanwhile, Nonoguchi arrived at the Hidaka residence, where he discovered the corpse. The whodunit quickly seems obvious, but in order to reveal the motive and method, the narrative alternates between a truculently unreliable narrator and a tenacious detective. Malice is the first title for Anglophone readers in Higashino’s highly successful Detective Kyoichiro Kaga series, which is up to 12 installments in Japan. That Higashino’s Detective Galileo series has already traveled stateside with award-winning success should ensure Detective Kaga, too, will continue sleuthing on U.S. shelves.

Published: “Five More to Go: Susan Choi’s TRUST EXERCISE,” The Booklist Reader, April 9, 2019


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