Book Review: Flèche – Mary Jean Chan [Dylan Thomas Prize 2020]

I’m so pleased to have been invited to take part in the blog tour for The Dylan Thomas Prize longlist. The prize is run by Swansea University who have announced a stunning longlist, including Flèche.

 


Blurb

Flèche (the French word for ‘arrow’) is an offensive technique commonly used in fencing, a sport of Mary Jean Chan’s young adult years, when she competed locally and internationally for her home city, Hong Kong. This cross-linguistic pun presents the queer, non-white body as both vulnerable (‘flesh’) and weaponised (‘flèche‘), and evokes the difficulties of reconciling one’s need for safety alongside the desire to shed one’s protective armour in order to fully embrace the world.

Central to the collection is the figure of the poet’s mother, whose fragmented memories of political turmoil in twentieth-century China are sensitively threaded through the book in an eight-part poetic sequence, combined with recollections from Chan’s childhood. As complex themes of multilingualism, queerness, psychoanalysis and cultural history emerge, so too does a richly imagined personal, maternal and national biography. The result is a series of poems that feel urgent and true, dazzling and devastating by turns.

Review

A bit of background on me. My relationship with poetry has been… rocky. My university days did not help this relationship, and in the many years since, I thought I’d never have a good relationship with it again.

The beauty of Flèche has turned my poetry life around.

The book is primarily split into three sections based on fencing terms: Parry, Riposte, and Corps-à-corps. Each section contains poetry based around these terms which represent defense, offense, and the coming together of two bodies.

Chan’s poetry tells a story of her life and the people around her, particularly her relationship with her mother. She walks us through her childhood into adulthood, including her experiences of what it is to be multilingual and queer.

Some of the pieces are from her mother’s perspective, others from her own perspective, and others are a reflection on specific events such as At the Castro, which details the mass shooting at the Castro bar in 2016.

I could never pick a favorite poem from this collection, it is not only impossible but I’m not sure that approach does the overall story in the collection justice. However, there was one particular poem I kept coming back to, Magnolias, purely for its visual effect.

A storm of dresses fell from her mother’s lips.

[…]

The girl dreams that the words sprouting like weeds from her mouth are not weeds, but magnolias: her mother’s favourite.

Magnolias

I cannot recommend Flèche highly enough. Not only is it stunning, but it is accessible. For poetry amateurs such as myself, you can find a pace with it and take away a message from each poem. I also think a lot of people will identify with Chan’s poetry for different reasons or even simply for the humanity displayed in the narrative.

Truthful, insightful, and captivating, Flèche is destined to be a collection that stays on our shelves for decades to come.

Many thanks to Midas PR for providing a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.


Order now

You can support your local bookshop by buying Flèche through them directly, or via Hive.


Comment below

What do you think of Flèche? Will you be reading it? Let me know in the comments below.

Wishing you a wonderfully bookish week,

Typewriter

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