Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Hachette Australia, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, South Korea, TBR2020, You-Jeong Jeong

‘The Good Son’ by You-Jeong Jeong

Fiction – paperback; Hachette Australia; 309 pages; 2018. Translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim.

The smell of blood woke me up.

So begin’s You-Jeong Jeong’s The Good Son, a locked room mystery that morphs into something much more dark and sinister.

It tells the story of a 25-year-old man who wakes up to discover his mother dead on the kitchen floor, a deep wound in her neck and blood everywhere, including on his own hands and clothes. But did he kill her? He has no memory of the night before because he has stopped taking his epilepsy medication and that often results in massive headaches and blackouts. There is no sign of forced entry, so if he didn’t kill her, who did?

Structured in four parts, all narrated by the son, the story charts Yu-Jin’s life living under a semi-lockdown with an over-protective mother. As the narrative progresses it gets increasingly more unhinged and abhorrent. I do, in fact, wonder why I bothered to read it. But it did have some good points:

I liked the ever-changing nature of the story. As soon as I thought I knew what was going on and why Yu-Jin behaved in a certain way, the author would throw in a new bit of information that made me reassess all that had gone before. I can’t explain it very well here because that would spoil the plot, but you cannot second-guess anything in this novel. And it’s that kind of unpredictability that is probably why I kept turning the pages.

It’s a good depiction of an unhinged mind. Think Francie in The Butcher Boy or Joy Stone in The Trick is to Keep Breathing. This is reflected in a narrative voice that gets increasingly more disturbing as the story moves forward.

The use of flashbacks is done well to show how Yu-Jin’s relationships — with his mother, his late brother, his adopted brother and his aunt — shaped him. I liked the way these also fleshed out the kind of child he was, introverted and insecure, but how his great talent for swimming took him out of himself and gave him confidence.

It has a satisfying ending, albeit one that makes you grateful the story is not real life.

Yet, for all that, there’s no denying The Good Son is gruesome and bloody and repugnant in places. It is definitely not one for the squeamish. It takes a lot to shock me, but I found this book a little too much to handle. Read it with caution.

This is my 12th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I bought it last year from the Dymocks $10 table, attracted by the marketing blurb on the front cover declaring it as a “Number One International Bestseller”. 

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Han Kang, Portobello Books, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, South Korea, TBR40

‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang

Fiction – paperback; Portobello Books; 183 pages; 2015. Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith.

Quite frankly, Han Kang’s debut novel, The Vegetarian — which I read for Women in Translation Month is a bonkers story.

The premise goes something like this: a married woman becomes a vegetarian in meat-loving South Korea after she keeps having a freakish dream involving lots of blood. Her family reacts angrily to her decision. At a dinner party, her father tries to ram a piece of meat down her throat. She responds by picking up a fruit knife and slashing her wrist. She goes to the hospital. Later, when she’s discharged, her marriage begins to fall apart. Meanwhile, her brother-in-law, an unsuccessful video artist, develops an unhealthy interest in her body, which is slowly wasting away, and paints flowers all over her naked form. They have sex, get caught by her sister, and then she ends up in a psychiatric ward, where she’s diagnosed with schizophrenia and anorexia, before admitting she really just wants to morph into a tree.

Yes, I told you it was bonkers.

An unsettling metamorphosis

Structured in three parts, it follows Yeong-hye’s metamorphosis from dutiful wife (her husband is arrogant, sexist and sexually abusive) to subversive vegetarian in pursuit of a more “plant-like” existence. We never hear from her directly, because her tale is told from the perspectives of those closest to her: her husband (in part one), her brother-in-law (part two) and her sister (part three).

As the narrative inches forward it becomes increasingly more unsettling and unhinged. Part one is particularly confronting (Yeong-hye’s husband rapes her and treats her abysmally), while part two borders on the pornographic. Part three is a bit more even-keeled, but even so, there are vivid descriptions of unpleasant experiences and medical procedures in a psychiatric facility that are unnerving.

And all this is rendered in cool, detached prose, with an occasional nod to poetic lyricism.

Critically acclaimed

When The Vegetarian was published in 2015 it was greeted with much enthusiastic praise and it won the International Man Booker Prize the following year, but at the risk of sounding churlish, I don’t quite understand the fuss.

It’s certainly original and even though it’s from South Korea, it has that languid, haunting quality that I normally associate with the best fiction from Japan. Similarly, it addresses themes of alienation, misogyny and a refusal to conform to societal conventions, but I found it difficult to engage with any of the characters and the storyline just didn’t hold my interest. Every time I put this book down, I really did not want to pick it up again.

And while I understand the book is saying a lot about the rigid constrictions of South Korean society, about sexual frustration and desire, and the ways in which the female body is used and abused, The Vegetarian — for all its intelligence, ideas and confrontation of taboos — really wasn’t for me.

Kate from Booksaremyfavouriteandbest didn’t much like it either.

This is my 8th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 27th for #TBR40. It has been in my TBR since 2015, having received it unsolicited from the publisher for potential review prior to its official release.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Hwang Sok-yong, literary fiction, Publisher, Scribe, Setting, South Korea

‘Familiar Things’ by Hwang Sok-Yong

Familiar Things by Hwang Sok-yong

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.

Book review, Books in translation, Dalkey Archive, Fiction, Haïlji, literary fiction, Lithuania, Publisher, Setting

‘The Republic of Užupis’ by Haïlji


Fiction – paperback; Dalkey Archive; 150 pages; 2014. Translated from the Korean by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I love reading books from non-English speaking countries because it’s the best (and cheapest) way of getting to know new and unfamiliar cultures and to experience the world through different eyes.

With that in mind, it might seem odd that my first foray into a book translated from the Korean language wasn’t actually set in Korea: instead Haïlji’s The Republic of Užupis, which is part of the Library of Korean Literature series — a joint venture between the Dalkey Archive Press and the Literature Translation Institute of Korea — is set in Lithuania.

But it proved a remarkable and entertaining journey — and if this slim volume is any indication of the state of Korean literature I’ll certainly be exploring more novels from this country in the future.

Stranger in a strange land

The book tells the story of Hal, a man in his early 40s from Korea, who arrives at Vilnius airport, hoping to bury his father’s ashes in his homeland known as the Republic of Užupis. But the immigration officer, who admits him into the country for 48 hours, doesn’t understand the reference. Later, when he asks a taxi driver to take him there, he’s met with a similar response:

“Where to, sir?”
[…] ‘Užupis,” said Hal.
‘Užupis?” said the driver, as if he had never heard of the name before.
“Yes, the Republic of Užupis.”
“Republic?” The man looked even more puzzled.
Hal produced a postcard and offered it to the driver. “Here’s the address. I think maybe it’s not so far from here. It’s postmarked Vilnius, Lithuania.”

As it turns out, the Republic of Užupis does exist — as this travel website clarifies — but only as a bohemian quarter on the other side of the river in Vilnius. But Hal is looking for something more substantial: a proper country with its own language and customs, yet he cannot find it and no one he meets along the way can take him there. This is despite the fact that he has family photographs proving the republic’s existence, can understand the language (but not speak it), knows its national anthem and flag, and swears his father was given a medal by the president.

Hal’s quest to find the republic becomes a kind of absurdist mystery, as the lines between what is real and what is not keep shifting and changing. As a reader, you never quite know if he’s looking for a real place or one that simply does not exist. And, by extension, you begin to wonder if the people he meets are real or is the whole journey a figment of his imagination?

Lost nationhood

The Republic of Užupis is essentially a novel about nationhood. What happens to people who lose their homelands through political boundary changes or annexation by other nations? And what is it like to be a stranger in a strange land looking for a place that no longer exists? Who should you trust? Who is responsible for authenticating history?

But while this might make the book sound rather heavy, let me assure you that it’s not. Instead it’s a rather delightful, intriguing and effortless read, which has been superbly translated by husband-and-wife team Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton.

It’s incredibly atmospheric, particularly of place: everything is still, quiet, desolate; it’s cold and snowy; the buildings look “glum and distinctly the worse for wear”; and the icy streets, shrouded in mist, are lined on either side by piles of dirty snow.

The city was still overcast, and today it was shrouded as well, with barely thirty feet of visibility in any direction. Pedestrians emerged coughing from the fog to Hal’s left and coughed their way back into the fog on his right. The sodden chill that characterised the weather here must have made the local people susceptible to pneumonia. Before he realised it, Hal was coughing along with them.

The narrative is dotted with lots of recurrent motifs, and it’s filled with characters — menacing, helpful, exotic — who come and go, disappearing and reappearing like the fog that swathes the city.

Indeed, the mood and atmosphere reminded me very much of Japanese writer Taichi Yamada’s ghost story Strangers, perhaps because it’s so dreamlike and melancholic. But the narrative is also marked by whimsy and a kind of magic realism, yet it could not be truly classified as one genre or the other.

If you haven’t already guessed, I really loved The Republic of Užupis — it’s peculiar and occasionally baffling, particularly as the author plays with the notions of time and memory, but the wonderfully hypnotic prose casts a spell that is hard to shake off. This is actually the author’s tenth novel — what a shame it’s the only one currently available in English.

UPDATE: Tony, who blogs at Tony’s Reading List, has also reviewed this book. You can read his thoughts here.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Japan, literary fiction, Nora Okja Keller, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Comfort Woman’ by Nora Okja Keller


Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 240  pages; 1998.

During the Second World War the Japanese military introduced a programme to provide sexual services for its troops. Young, often ethnic, women were kept prisoner in special camps where they were employed as “comfort women”, a euphemism for being systematically raped and beaten.

American-Korean writer Nora Okja Keller explores this abhorrent practise in her astonishing debut novel Comfort Woman, which, upon its release in 1997, attracted critical acclaim from far and wide.

Through twin narratives, which jump backward and forward in time, we learn the secrets and private struggles of two women: Akiko, a Korean refugee living in Hawaii, who has the unnerving ability to channel spirits; and Beccah, Akiko’s daughter by an American missionary, who loves her mother deeply but is unable to fully accept her cultural and ethnic heritage.

What Beccah does not know is that her mother was once a comfort woman. This deeply hidden secret manifests itself in Akiko’s often insane — and embarrassing — behaviour that plagues Beccah for much of her childhood. When most teenage girls are having fun, Beccah is haunted by her mother’s absurd kowtowing to the spirits of the dead.

It is only when the secret is revealed that Beccah comes to some kind of understanding of her mother’s strange ways…

While this is a confidently written and eloquent tale about the horrors of war and its far-reaching impact on its survivors and their children, it’s also a testament to the strength of the mother-daughter relationship even when it is dominated by unexplained pain and fear of both the real and imaginary kind.

I very much enjoyed reading this book, although the dual narratives in which Akiko and Beccah take it in turns to tell their story grated slightly and hindered the overall flow of the book.

The emphasis on the spirit world was also slightly overdone, so that it came to suffocate the rest of the story. I wanted to know more about Akiko’s traumatic past — the hub of the novel — and less about her traumatic present.

Finally, the discovery of Akiko’s secret came too close to the end, so that there was very little exploration of how this bombshell impacted on the rest of Beccah’s life.

Despite these flaws Comfort Woman is a disturbing yet moving story, and one that resonates long after the book draws to a close.