Fiction – paperback; Scribe UK; 224 pages; 2017. Translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Just as the recent Grenfell Tower fire here in London has highlighted the enormous disparity in the conditions under which the rich and poor live cheek by jowl in this city, Hwang Sok-Yong’s Familiar Things shows the same inequality — albeit a little more extreme — in modern day South Korea.
Set on a massive landfill site on the outskirts of Seoul, the story gives voice to the city’s marginalised population. It is told through the eyes of a 14-year-old boy known as Bugeye. His father has been arrested and taken to a re-education camp, so now his mother, a street vendor, must support them.
When she finds a job as a “trash picker” sorting out recyclables at the dump, they move from their existing hillside slum in the city to the ironically named “Flower Island” and live in a shack made of plastic, reclaimed wood and styrofoam in a shanty town on site.
The shifts his mother works are long and dangerous, but she makes more money than she did as a street vendor and they have plenty to eat, even if some of it is recovered from the waste they sort through on a daily basis. Yet Bugeye knows this is not a good life.
A month has already passed since Bugeye and his mother moved to Flower Island. She had tried to console Bugeye at first by saying that people lived there just like anywhere else, but he knew it was a garbage dump filled with things used up and tossed aside, things people had grown tired of using, and things that were no longer of any use to anyone at all, and that the people who lived there were likewise discards and outcasts driven from the city.
Over the course of the novel Bugeye makes friends, including the ancient spirits who once lived on the island before it was turned into a landfill site, and slowly adjusts to his new situation.
Evocative tale about inequality
Familiar Things is a truly evocative, haunting tale, expertly translated by Sora Kim-Russell. There’s a silky, dreamlike quality to the prose, which captures beauty where you would least expect it.
The blurb on my edition makes much of the magic realism of the story, something that would normally turn me off. But in a society that is steeped so much in the spiritual, it works beautifully. It’s done with such a lightness of touch it feels a wholly appropriate part of the narrative, highlighting the connections between the past and present, and showing that when you throw things away there are consequences — for the environment, for the economy, for society and for the people left behind.
I loved the subtle message of the story too, the way in which it conveys the idea that every life has a value and that too rapid urbanisation comes at a cost. But despite the fact that this is — at its heart — a political book and probably written from a place of anger, it has the feel of a light, easy read. It certainly makes me want to explore more by this author, whose own life story seems as intriguing as the tale he tells in this novel.
For another take on Familiar Things, please see Tony’s review at Tony’s Reading List.