Forty Bibles and Forty Dictionaries is an autobiographical account of the lives of author Hae-Lyun Kang and her family: Korean, Catholic and middle-class, living in Sydney, from 1970 to the present. With an obsessive mother, a hard-pressing father, unusually-humored sisters, and a brother who fired two shots at Charles, Prince of Wales in January of 1994, Kang describes from her own perspective how she and her brother both grew into becoming who they are, and what may have lead her brother to the infamous circumstances in Sydney.
Advertised as the “memoir on the family of the man who committed affray in front of Prince Charles in 1994,” the book has very little focus on brother David Kang for the majority of the text, being instead more of a general look at the home lives of the author and her sibling before allowing more dedicated space in the overall narrative for his general decline and how it affected the family. The quarrels and quirks of Kang’s home life are revealed rather openly, with accounts of both a unique familial understanding and a jumbled, sometimes conflict-ridden household. Kang presents as-is, and carries a sense of “it is what it is.” Regret isn’t present in her writing, and flecks of bitterness seem outweighed by the fondness of recollection and – on the whole – the bold statement of origin that comprises the book, random possum-catching and all.
The factors leading into the event of the “affray” are explored with a great deal of subjectivity through the lens of author’s perspective, and even memories of dreams are chosen as important parts in her personal reconstruction of events. Her telling is through her own eyes, of her own feelings and her home surrounding the incident, and anyone looking for a more detailed exploration of the shooting itself will be disappointed as the focus is on everything we didn’t already know.
Outside of this, the book seems like a rather unfocused collection of thoughts, as each chapter jumps between styles, lengths, time periods and themes. One chapter could be a childhood memory while the next a two-page poem about Kang’s mother; a chapter on the mental health of the author is soon followed by a recipe for kimchi stew. The book is written with a great deal of informality, seeming to be a collection of diary entries and notes mixed into later recollection to form a descriptive, emotional narrative; the publisher affirms the piece as evocative, not a “transcript” in the first pages, and claims no responsibility for the accuracy. The book reads like a blog, but is presented more like a novel based on true events, and the result is unusual even in terms of personal memoir.
Overall the book is interesting as a view into what to some may be an unusual homelife and to others may be all too familiar, although perhaps far more uncommon to be living with someone arrested for federal crimes against a royal. While this incident is considered a selling point of the book, more pervading are themes of family, monarchy, immigration and race in Australia throughout the last few decades. If these are of interest to you as a reader then the book is very insightful and heartfelt, however expectations from the cover alone – while creative – are unlikely to match the contents for most. The book at its core is a fly-on-the-wall memoir of incidents of a household, ending with the exclamation mark of an attempted pseudo-assassination, and should be judged on that merit more than anything else.