About the book
Defiant and incisive, Mending Bodies is a surrealist novel about a young woman’s resistance against absurd socio-bureaucratic powers (law and culture, family and peers, academic and medical institutions) and what it means for a person to be respected and free – if one can ever be free.
In an unnamed city, a new law called the Conjoinment Act is passed for men and women to be surgically sewn together once they come of age. Couples are biologically matched according to their height, weight, metabolism and age, and soon society believes conjoinment is the only path to a better life – but there are social and political implications.
The narrator, an unnamed young woman, is about to graduate university and resists her ill-fated joining. She fights for her independence and makes conjoinment the subject of her dissertation. As she conducts research, she forms significant, if fleeting, relationships with key figures of her life, toiling through love and friendships that challenge her identity and values. Overcome with insidious pressure from her community and controlling social systems, the narrator makes a drastic decision as she seeks answers for why society is forcing people to live a certain way.
What our readers say
Hon Lai-chu blurs nightmare and reality in this allegorical story about the body, identity and social controls, and her nameless menacing world is bring to life in a haunting translation by Jacqueline Leung.
Awards and press
‘Hon’s latest novel Mending Bodies does not specify a universe or a place, but it reflects Hong Kong’s social situation in which minorities are degraded and marginalised . . . Conjoinment may seem like an abstract act, but it is emblematic of the unquestioned beliefs that have indoctrinated our lives.’
—Fang Hui-Chen, author, China Times
‘Hon writes intricately about power, architecture, language and the inner worlds of people from all walks of life, bringing the invisible hand of power to light through tangible, resonating stories. Surreal and imaginative, her texts elucidate the circumstances and power structures of the real world. . . . In Mending Bodies, the narrator chooses to remain true to herself, rejecting predominating doctrines to become someone she loves.’
—Park Literary Magazine
‘[Hon Lai-chu’s] prose is precise and economical, without any fancy embellishment, yet often astonishes. The worlds [she evokes] are so desolate, so sparse and strange, but utterly commonplace; [her] characters are so helpless before an indescribable larger system or power forcing them to submit . . . Hon portrays coldness without being devoid of emotion, violence without blood, cruelty without death, and fear without horror. I often laugh when reading her books—not from a distant place of mockery, but to hide my existential unease. The more I hide, the more ridiculous it becomes, and I sink into this deep depression. . . . Hon is a rarity among contemporary novelists.’
—Dung Kai-cheung on Hon Lai-chu
In 2014, the novel was adapted for stage by Theatre Ronin as Sew & Soul, directed by theatre veteran Alex Tam. The play was also positively received by Hong Kong’s top cultural publications, Mingpao and City Magazine.
UK English (North American English rights sold)
Mending Bodies by Hon Lai Chu
Translation Sample by Jacqueline Leung
I already knew they were at the door when the doorbell rang. It was plum rain season, lush mould blooming all around. Mei had always been punctual, I just hadn’t imagined the person she’d joined her body with would share the same habit.
‘So they’re on time,’ he said, staring at the clock above our door, dismay seeping into his voice. He shifted, tugging at the wound that connected our chests. Because of Mei’s visit, he’d had to sacrifice his sleep in the afternoon – it would be unseemly if one of us was unconscious when someone came all this way.
Less than a month into our own joining, we’d finished most of the sleeping pills our doctor had prescribed. Before we went under the knife, he and I agreed to take turns sleeping while we transitioned into our new body, so we’d have the space to get used to each other and still savour the pleasure of spending time alone. Since we slept at different hours, we could maybe even dream different dreams.
Handing over a bottle of the brown pills, our doctor had said, ‘This will help you cope with physical discomfort and any minor but persistent inflammation.’ He had wide, symmetrical shoulders and a body that was single, whole, with no obvious signs of laceration under his white robe and mask. I wondered then what a doctor so young, who hadn’t been severed or cut open, could possibly know about conjoining. But he spoke so authoritatively, I felt guilty for ever thinking to doubt him.
True to his word, after we were discharged from the hospital, not a single moment passed without the sting, like colonies of ants crawling all over our skin. We writhed as we attempted to arrange our limbs comfortably and were slow to even properly function. Every time conflict seemed imminent, though, one of us would swallow a brown pill, and in seconds our exasperation was washed away by sleep. This was why we never argued, never said words we later regretted. Whenever we spoke about this small triumph, we enjoyed a rare moment of happiness, something akin to pride.
We opened our door to Mei and a man standing in the dim corridor, holding a large basket filled with succulent green apples. The green reflected on their faces, making Mei’s smile an eerie sort of friendly. I couldn’t hide my shock, not because of their ghastly expressions, but because of the way their bodies clung together, a curious seam down their shirt, tucked away but still visible. It was enough for me to imagine the two bodies underneath their clothes, chests drilled and sewn together until their skin, muscles, cartilage, and tissue connected like two ends of a bridge. From then on, their bodies led only to one another.
After our surgery, we made sure to stay away from glass and mirrors of any form. Whenever we showered or changed our clothes, we lowered our eyes so we wouldn’t catch our reflections in the water or on the windows. We’d gone to these lengths to avoid looking at the place where we joined, only for our first visitors to ambush us with a glimpse of theirs.
We shuffled aside to let them through the narrow doorway. They walked into the living room, sat down on the sofa, and one of them said, ‘What a nice apartment.’
We served them coffee. The rain was falling harder, hitting the city like fistfuls of beans. Mei and her partner asked about our sound system and the conversation flowed. And then Mei shifted closer and whispered in my ear, ‘Does it hurt?’
It was taboo to ask, but the way she said it reminded me of our younger selves and university days long ago, when we’d huddle together in our dorm room, rolling cigarettes and prattling about our professors and peers and the torment of having so many papers to write. The rain also crawled like tendrils down our foggy window in those days.
‘I won’t say it hurts.’ I lowered my voice, my words quickly drowned out by the pummelling rain. ‘I just feel different parts of myself more acutely than before. My head, shoulders, chest, clavicles, abdomen, limbs. Like an overweight backpack.’ I missed the days before my surgery, when I was light as a wisp, capable of leaving this world as soon as I crossed a road or rounded a corner into the back of a building. But these were thoughts I held for myself.
‘More weight isn’t necessarily bad.’ Mei glanced at her man and said, ‘We go further with our feet firmly on the ground.’ Her gaze was unreadable. Defensive or controlling, maybe, I couldn’t tell.
They finished the coffee and stood up to leave. He and I coordinated our heads to peer out the window, waving when Mei and her partner re-emerged on the street.
‘They walk in unison wherever they go,’ I said, embarrassed that I wasn’t able to do the same.
‘Anyone can do it with practice,’ he said dismissively. ‘It’s just something conjoined people do to show off after being together for a while.’
I watched them disappear around the corner, feeling something that had always been close to me was leaving forever. I remembered then that Mei had told me her partner’s name: Kui. I didn’t know how it was written – whether it meant someone who was encompassing or able or strong. I never had the chance to find out, and now the man was an inseparable part of her.
By the time he dragged our bodies to bed, he was exhausted and heavy-eyed. I slept at midnight, so his bedtime was supposed to start at noon. We never asked what the other person did while we were sleeping. When the rain stopped, sunlight shone into the room and cast our shadow on the white wall. I stared at the shape of us, the colour of our shadow, trying to decipher what it could have been. A tent, a strange hill, some prehistoric dinosaur? Then I looked at my pallid feet and my blue socks and pants, his folded knee and plaid shirt, his long arm stretched across my abdomen. For a moment everything felt distant, as if it all came from a different planet. I had no idea why I was trapped in a body like this.
It was not my choice, or anyone else’s choice. The stage must have been set a long time ago, and we were simply bearing collective responsibility. This logic applied to conjoinment but also many other matters of the world, like being born and becoming a person, a woman, a man.
I’d always thought I could avoid being tethered to these larger forces. Of course it was years ago, and I was just like any other kid in the city, enjoying my transient freedom before adulthood. Everything seemed to happen somewhere far from home, so we could still live in our deluded fantasies. By the time we grew up, and had no choice but to face them, maybe things were already irreparably changed, and we irrevocably doomed.
When the time came, a certain sound enveloped us like an ocean, as if to drown us. It drew near, a distant rumble, like a train along rusted tracks. I first heard murmurs of it in the classroom whenever my attention strayed. Then, after school, the noise seemed to surge from every open window on my way home. I entered my building, walking down the long, narrow corridor as the rumbling roared from every unit, so loud I felt it would run me over.
I slid a key into the lock and opened the door. The apartment was filled with plastic bags and strips of fabric. My mother sat in the centre of the mess, her brows knit together, busy at the sewing machine that the noise was coming from. The machine looked new and came with a pedal. It made quick work of a piece of white cloth, stitching a red streak across the fabric in seconds.
‘Finally some life and action in the city,’ my mother said at dinner that night, looking at the pile of clothes she’d made. It was her first day breaking a long spell of unemployment. With the city’s factories moving away to places where it was cheaper, she and many other seamstresses had lost their jobs. And yet, a week after the Conjoinment Act was announced, a hospital contracted her for a rush production of clothes for the first group of patients. She was paid handsomely, almost as much as a full-time salary.
In the same year, health professionals who had been forced to retire early were ushered back to their posts, and medical students who’d spent months looking for jobs were suddenly hired. For car manufacturers, business thrived, overwhelmed with pre-orders for new models with seats for the conjoined. Idle interior designers, repairmen, architects, and construction workers found work again with projects to build wider entrances and passages. Furniture stores on the brink of closure recruited again so that they could produce chairs, desks, toilets, bathtubs, and sinks for their new conjoined customers.
‘All this bustle means employment is on the rise again,’ my mother told me while she washed our dishes. Before the downturn, people had gone on the streets to protest all sorts of noise. Screeching tires, ticking traffic lights, the digging and piling of construction sites, all that ineffable clamouring from manufacturing – noises that exceeded an acceptable level of decibels. They claimed it affected their hearing, caused chronic fatigue, and even made having a conversation difficult. But when all the production came to a halt, people realised that piercing silence was even harder to bear.
On a talk show discussing the Conjoinment Act, a psychologist had refuted the argument that the law was passed purely for economic reasons and said that society was in a state of crisis graver than ever before. Obsolete marriages, racial conflict, wealth discrepancy, the many contrived wars – these all came from our inability to fill the existential lack we were born with.
‘No person is complete on their own,’ he had said. Society’s current systems had failed to address our emptiness. He restated his view when the host asked about the practical difficulties of conjoinment. ‘Only by being with another person can we experience cycles of joy, heartbreak, harmony, and conflict to arrive at true fulfilment.’
The leader of the opposition party had also stated his anxieties, but few understood them or paid attention. He said that conjoinment was an elaborate political ploy to make citizens forget their long-running campaign for the city’s independence. That the government was introducing these measures so people would exhaust themselves struggling with the bodies of other people, leaving them too weary to care about matters of society. If the Conjoinment Act was passed, he said desperately, people would be in too much physical pain to protest.
Only environmentalists remained optimistic. ‘A conjoined couple will shower, eat, and travel together,’ one said. ‘They’ll consume less petrol and water, need fewer things and less space.’ But amid all these opinions, hardly anyone expressed their overt agreement or disagreement. Only a long time later, when I stepped into adulthood, did I learn that a certain ambivalence toward policies that we had no genuine say in deciding was the last and best resort for protecting our remaining freedoms. If we obeyed, as if it didn’t really matter, and then found the loopholes in these rules, we could secretly map the limits of their control.
Every evening after a day’s work, my mother would ask me to put on the white shirts and pants she made and check them for flaws that would mean a reduction in her wages. I could only ever fill up half of every set. Sometimes she left the sleeves hanging or let the pant legs drag across the floor, or she’d squeeze in and support the fabric with her own body. Whenever she did it, her eyes would cloud with some unreadable emotion, and she would become completely unfamiliar to me.
As I tried on more clothes, the allowance my mother gave me increased. I saved enough to buy a rectangular mirror to hang on my closet door. In the morning, as soon as I woke, I’d stand in front of the mirror to inspect my body for every tiny change that might have occurred, the same way my mother scrutinised her clothes for their quality. I bought outfits in every colour, and all kinds of makeup: blushes, lipsticks, eyebrow pencils, powder, eyeliners. Every now and then I dolled myself up, becoming someone else, while my mother stood a distance away and stared at me, aloof.
And then, the evening that winter turned into spring, I looked into the mirror as my mother draped over me a shirt she’d just finished sewing. Something about the sight made us both start. Somehow, without us having noticed, I’d grown almost to the size of her clothes.
‘Just a tiny bit more,’ my mother said, measuring the gap with her little finger.
‘Am I getting bloated because of the humidity?’ I asked. She said nothing and stuck herself into the other half of the shirt. I looked at our reflection: we were like actors posing as a conjoined couple. My mother’s grey hair, wrinkled face, and saggy neck came into focus, like they were etched onto the mirror with a needle. Her gaze fell distant again, foreign and detached. I never knew if it was because she was disappointed about being too old for conjoinment, or if she was relieved that she had no part to play in any of it. Later, I too would feel this listlessness as I faced my ordeals. Everyone has an unspeakable struggle that is strictly theirs, a burden that cannot be shared or lifted by others. I understood then why my mother looked so cold whenever she watched me inspect my skin and hair and as I picked out my clothes and shoes. She must have realised a long time ago that looks could not be relied upon.
On Monday mornings, when she dropped off the clothes at the hospital, my mother would make up reasons to wander in the maze of corridors and areas off limits to visitors, curiosity getting the better of her. Her eyes watched beautiful men and women, their skin supple and limbs lithe and muscles tight, here for their special day to get cut open and sewn together. On the operating table, these young men and women had no control over how their scars would look afterwards – that depended entirely on their surgeon, whether they were feeling frustrated, calm or bored that day, which dictating how the sutures mended.
‘Even if they get a good surgeon, once a body is severed, the parts that remain whole will also slowly wilt, like cut flowers in a vase. Vibrant but for a short time only.’ I wished I could forget what my mother told me. After that, I couldn’t bring home plants that had their stems and roots cut off. They reminded me too much of the people on the streets and made me so afraid.
‘This won’t do you good in the long term,’ my mother always said when she looked at my vanity table and its dishevelled collection of bottles, filled with different coloured powders and liquids.
But is there such a thing as absolute good? I thought, and couldn’t come up with an answer.
Before the surgery, he and I had put in an application to update our ID, agreeing to discard our old names for a new shared one.
‘It’s not like anyone will speak to just you or me anymore’ he said. ‘It’s us or neither of us.’ I wasn’t sure, but couldn’t find a reason why, which made me wonder if I had an opinion in the first place.
Once we got our new ID, I stored the card away in the corner of a drawer. Like many who couldn’t recite their ID numbers off the top of their heads, I found it hard to recall our new name. At events, whenever people asked who I was, I would get stuck, drawing an awkward blank. Soon I grew fearful of names altogether, because after the short, discomforting pause, I was inevitably tempted to say my old name. I always managed to hold my tongue, but it reminded me of his name and mine every time. We had completely different, unrelated names. If we hadn’t said them out loud, hadn’t decided to meet and get to know each other, we wouldn’t have thought to join our bodies. By some complete work of chance, he’d come up to me and told me his name was Nok.
‘Not “Lok” as in happy but “Nok” as in music, the sounds people use to numb their emotions,’ he said. I didn’t think to learn it by heart at the time – my mind was elsewhere, filled with fanciful things. But change always starts from small, unspeakable moments. When I realised just how critical this was, I was already trapped, a poor swimmer flailing in a large vortex.
That day, he’d walked up to me and flashed the number card in his hand. I also showed mine and the mood lightened somewhat, the cards a source of comfort that set the boundaries of our meeting.
There were aquariums all around us, and in them tropical fish were swimming in the same direction. We were at a newly opened Japanese restaurant. A server came and gave us tea and menus. We sat in silence for a while until we saw a blue gourami suddenly give chase to a gold one. He said, ‘Water flows strangely in these tanks.’
We didn’t pick the restaurant, or when we’d meet. I didn’t choose to dine with this man in front of me. But these were conditions we accepted without complaint. A month before, we’d each submitted an application to Magical Meals, a body matching centre. After we’d paid our fees, the centre paired us according to our height, weight, skin colour, age, and metabolism.
I’d signed up for the programme with every intention of scorning it. In my dissertation workshop, Professor Foot had given his advice: ‘When you’re having trouble with writing, and it feels like you need to weed out some thoughts, it’s time to leave our computers and get some action.’
‘What kind of action?’ someone asked.
‘Make the fear that paralyses you in your sleep become real. Stand before it, no turning away, and observe. Record it if you can.’
This was why I filled out the form once I saw an ad for body matching and submitted it over email. Sitting in this chilly restaurant, I found myself unable to keep making fun of the situation, feeling more flustered than ever before. I sipped my cup of green tea, tasting its faint hint of rust, and realised my sense of satisfaction wasn’t coming from my ridicule of the matching programme, but from my mother’s relief when I pretended to be interested, how she’d sighed and said, ‘You’re finally considering conjoinment?’
My doctor had also commended the decision. ‘The younger you are when you undergo surgery, the less likely you’ll reject your partner’s body.’ Even the staff at the matching centre sounded unusually hopeful over the phone. I was momentarily comforted by their acceptance. But as soon as I realised, dread settled in my heart.
Professor Foot didn’t know I was meeting this man – I would never share anything personal with him – but I was sure that, by sitting in this restaurant, I was being the type of person he despised.
‘Do you think the fish here feel trapped?’ Nok asked. ‘Humiliated? With all these customers eating their own kind in front of them.’ He shoved a piece of raw salmon into his mouth and made a face at the tank.
I turned and caught sight of a neon tetra twisting in and out of a piece of artificial coral like it had no control over its body.
‘Maybe their eyesight isn’t good enough for them to see the dishes. Maybe they don’t understand what humans are doing. Or they could be used to the strong preying on the weak. In which case, this dining hall, beyond the glass, is just meaningless scenery.’
‘Most importantly,’ I said with finality, ‘we don’t eat tropical fish.’ I bit into a dank piece of tuna.
‘I hear medical students get together every day after school to eat raw meat until they feel completely indifferent to blood. They need to get over their unease of dissecting flesh to become outstanding surgeons.’
I was holding my breath, drawn to the sound of bubbles rising inside the tanks. At first, it was little more than small pockets of air, like chirring insects, but soon the vibrations grew rampant, forcing their way towards us. I should probably have tried to hear the words behind his words, and everything he left unsaid, rather than the water.
‘Do you plan to join your body with another person?’ He finally cut to the point, no longer able to withstand the silence.
‘That, you’ll need to cut off a part of yourself.’
‘Depends, conjoinment surgery has advanced a lot by now.’
‘I’m scared of blood and mangled bodies.’
‘You won’t see a thing. You fall asleep once the anaesthetic is injected. By the time you wake, everything will be over.’
‘The incision will still be on my body. I’ll still feel its existence. Some people’s wounds never heal after their bodies got sewn together.’
‘Those are very rare cases, and there’s a risk to everything. Say you remain a whole individual. Your pure skin could invite assault from those who are joined and jealous. Can anyone guarantee their bodies will stay intact their entire lives?’ He raised several recent trafficking cases involving human limbs and organs. Terrifying incidents happened around us every day, he said. It was just that, as the fortunate and unaffected, we feigned ignorance to keep ourselves happy and secure.
The smallest fish in the tank was swimming among the bed of plants and glass pebbles. It was hardly larger than a speck of dust and never came across another fish of its size. I pointed at it and said, ‘Do you think it’ll get eaten by a larger fish before it grows up?’
‘Is that a pet or pet food?’
I left the restaurant, and forgot almost everything about Nok. His appearance, his scent, what he said – it was as if I’d never met him. Only a few feeble tropical fish writhed and broke out of the murky tank and breached my mind. They kept me awake that night, so I turned on my laptop and started working on the dissertation outline I was supposed to hand in a month ago. I wrote without pause, the fish in close pursuit behind me.
I typed out the last sentence and lifted my head to look at the wide expanse of the sky. It was grey, like the underbelly of a fish swimming high above.