Maybe I just have overly rosy memories of Winter in Sokcho, but this was really…underwhelming. Lots of interesting themes and moments here (I especially loved the ending), but the story was missing those important interstitial bits that make a narrative feel cohesive. I understand that Elisa Shua Dusapin’s writing is like this: that what distinguishes it is precisely that stop-and-start quality that makes every sentence or sentence fragment feel very punctuated and striking. I get that, and at times that quality does work; I don’t need every novel I read to have flowery, lyrical prose. At the same time, though, I feel like where Dusapin’s writing worked for me in Winter in Sokcho, it didn’t quite work for me here. I wanted more from the story, but the writing style seemed to constantly hold me at arm’s length.
Thanks to Restless Books for providing me with an eARC of this via Edelweiss!
hi everyone!! I don’t know what brought this on but I’ve been so into Korean fiction this year. I’ve read some really amazing translated Korean fiction lately, and so have been trying to find more Korean books in translation to read. with that being said, I thought I’d share some of the ones I’ve managed to find so far that have sounded really interesting to me and, hopefully, to you as well.
the list includes graphic novels, short story collections, and novels, and with the exception of two books (which I’ve noted), all of the books are already released!
Moms by Yeong-shin Ma (tr. Janet Hong)
An outrageously funny book about middle-aged women that reexamines romance, lust, and gender norms
Lee Soyeon, Myeong-ok, and Yeonjeong are all mothers in their mid-fifties. And they’ve had it. They can no longer bear the dead weight of their partners or the endless grind of menial jobs where their bosses control everything, down to how much water they can drink. Although Lee Soyeon divorced her husband years ago after his gambling drove their family into bankruptcy, she finds herself in another tired and dishonest decade-long relationship with Jongseok, a slimy waiter at a nightclub. Meanwhile, Myeong-ok is having an illicit affair with a younger man, and Yeonjeong, whose husband suffers from erectile dysfunction, has her eye on an acquaintance from the gym. Bored with conventional romantic dalliances, these women embrace outrageous sexual adventures and mishaps, ending up in nightclubs, motels, and even the occasional back-alley brawl.
With this boisterous and darkly funny manhwa, Yeong-shin Ma defies the norms of the traditional Korean family narrative, offering instead the refreshingly honest and unfiltered story of a group of middle-aged moms who yearn for something more than what the mediocre men in their lives can provide. Despite their less-than-desirable jobs, salaries, husbands, and boyfriends, these women brazenly bulldoze their way through life with the sexual vulnerability and lust typically attributed to twenty-somethings.
Umma’s Table by Yeok-Sik Hong (tr. Janet Hong)
The joy of food and tradition unites a family faltering in the face of illness and loss
Madang is an artist and new father who moves to a quiet home in the countryside with his wife and young baby, excited to build a new life full of hope and joy, complete with a garden and even snow. But soon reality sets in and his attention is divided between his growing happy family and his impoverished parents back in Seoul in a dingy basement apartment. With an ailing mother in and out of the hospital and an alcoholic father, Madang struggles to overcome the exhaustion and frustration of trying to be everything all at once: a good son, devoted father, and loving husband.
To cope, he finds himself reminiscing about their family meals together, particularly his mother’s kimchi, a traditional dish that is prepared by the family and requires months of fermentation. Memories of his mother’s glorious cooking—so good it would prompt a young Madang and his brother into song—soothe the family. With her impending death, Madang races to learn her recipes and bring together the three generations at the family table while it’s still possible. This is a beautiful and thoughtful meditation on how the kitchen and communal cooking—in the past, present, and future—bind a family together amidst the inevitable.
Uncomfortably Happily by Yeok-Sik Hong (tr. Hellen Jo)
Inspired by Yeon-sik Hong’s attempt to move to the country with his partner, Uncomfortably, Happily is the story of a young couple finding their way. Burdened by unmet comics deadlines and high rent, our narrator and his wife know they must make a change. Convinced the absence of traffic noise will ease his writer’s block, our pair welcomes the idea of building a life from scratch. Deciding on a home atop an uninhabited mountain, they excitedly embrace the charms of their new rural existence.
From tending to the land and attempting grocery runs through snow, to the complexities of fighting depression in seclusion, the move does not immediately prove to be the golden ticket they’d hoped for, and the silence of the mountain poses as much of an obstacle to output as the sirens of the city. Through it all, though, we see simple pleasures seep in and gain prominence over these commercial, and, often, comparatively trivial worries: the smell of the forest, the calming weight of enveloping snow, and the gratification of a stripped down life making art begin to muffle other concerns.
Originally published in Korean to great acclaim and winning the Manhwa Today award, Uncomfortably, Happily uniquely explores our narrator’s inner world. Hong propels the comic with gorgeously detailed yet simple art, sharing the story of two lives unfolding slowly, sometimes uncomfortably, yet ultimately, happily.
The Court Dancer by Kyung-sook Shin (tr. Anton Hur)
Based on a remarkable true story, the New York Times bestselling author of Please Look After Mom brilliantly images the life of Yi Jin, an orphan who would fall under the affections of the Empress and become a jewel in the late Joseon Court.
When a novice French diplomat arrives for an audience with the Emperor, he is enraptured by the Joseon Dynasty’s magnificent culture, then at its zenith. But all fades away when he sees Yi Jin perform the delicate traditional Dance of the Spring Oriole. Though well aware that women of the court belong to the palace, the young diplomat confesses his love to the Emperor, and gains permission for Yi Jin to accompany him back to France.
A world away in Belle Epoque Paris, Yi Jin lives a free, independent life, away from the gilded cage of the court, and begins translating and publishing Joseon literature into French with another Korean student. But even in this new world, great sorrow awaits her. Yi Jin’s grieving and suffering is only amplified by homesickness and a longing for her oldest friend. But her homecoming was not a happy one. Betrayal, jealousy, and intrigue abound, culminating with the tragic assassination of the last Joseon empress—and the poisoned pages of a book.
Rich with historic detail and filled with luminous characters, Korea’s most beloved novelist brings a lost era to life in a story that will resonate long after the final page.
Lonesome You by Park Wan-Suh (tr. Elizabeth Haejin Yoon)
Well before her death in 2011, Park Wan-Suh had established herself as a canonical figure in Korean literature. Her work–often based upon her own personal experiences, and showing keen insight into divisive social issues from the Korean partition to the position of women in Korean society–has touched readers for over forty years. In this collection, meditations upon life in old age come to the fore–at its best, accompanied by great beauty and compassion; at its worst by a cynicism that nonetheless turns a bitter smile upon the changing world.
The Cabinet by Un-su Kim (tr. Sean Lin Halbert)
A mind-bending work of literary fiction from one of South Korea’s hottest new novelists.
Cabinet 13 looks like an old, ordinary cabinet. But it is filled with stories – peculiar, strange, eye popping, disgusting, enraging, and touching stories. The life of the man who manages cabinet 13, an ordinary office manager, is similarly filled with stories. Un-Su Kim intricately interweaves the all these stories with precise prose and in rich style, and will leave you thinking about the stories inside your own cabinet long after you turn the final page.
This one isn’t out till October 12.
Table For One by Yun Ko-eun (tr. Lizzie Buehler)
An office worker who has no one to eat lunch with enrolls in a course that builds confidence about eating alone. A man with a pathological fear of bedbugs offers up his body to save his building from infestation. A time capsule in Seoul is dug up hundreds of years before it was intended to be unearthed. A vending machine repairman finds himself trapped in a shrinking motel during a never-ending snowstorm.
In these and other indelible short stories, contemporary South Korean author Yun Ko-eun conjures up slightly off-kilter worlds tucked away in the corners of everyday life. Her fiction is bursting with images that toe the line between realism and the fantastic. Throughout Table for One, comedy and an element of the surreal are interwoven with the hopelessness and loneliness that pervades the protagonists’ decidedly mundane lives. Yun’s stories focus on solitary city dwellers, and her eccentric, often dreamlike humor highlights their sense of isolation. Mixing quirky and melancholy commentary on densely packed urban life, she calls attention to the toll of rapid industrialization and the displacement of traditional culture. Acquainting the English-speaking audience with one of South Korea’s breakout young writers, Table for One presents a parade of misfortunes that speak to all readers in their unconventional universality.
PS: this one isn’t out till January 4, 2022 but I still wanted to include it!
To the Warm Horizon by Choi Jin-Young (tr. Soje)
A group of Koreans are making their way across a disease-ravaged landscape—but to what end? To the Warm Horizon shows how in a post-apocalyptic world, humans will still seek purpose, kinship, and even intimacy. Focusing on two young women, Jina and Dori, who find love against all odds, Choi Jin-young creates a dystopia where people are trying to find direction after having their worlds turned upside down.
Lucidly translated from the Korean by Soje, this thoughtful yet gripping novel takes the reader on a journey through how people adjust, or fail to adjust, to catastrophe.
The Impossible Fairytale by Han Yujoo (tr. Janet Hong)
The Impossible Fairytale tells the story of the nameless ‘Child’, who struggles to make a mark on the world, and her classmate Mia, whose spoiled life is everything the Child’s is not.
At school, adults are nearly invisible, and the society the children create on their own is marked by soul-crushing hierarchies and an underlying menace. Then, one day after hours, the Child sneaks into the classroom to add ominous sentences to her classmates’ notebooks, setting in motion a series of cataclysmic events.
I’ll Go On by Hwang Jungeun (tr. Emily Yae Won)
From one of South Korea’s most acclaimed young authors comes the story of two sisters, Sora and Nana. When Sora was ten years old, and Nana was nine, their father died in a freak accident at the factory where he worked, his body sucked under a huge cogwheel, crushed beyond recognition. Their mother Aeja, numb with grief, gives in to torpor, developing an unhealthy obsession with the paradoxical violence implicit in life.
Now adults, Sora finds herself dreaming of the past when she discovers that Nana is pregnant. Her initial reaction is shock – though they live together, she never even realised her younger sister had a lover – and Nana’s icy response to her attempt at being considerate (‘You hate this, so don’t pretend like I’m some poor pregnant woman you have to pity’) drives a wedge between the two. Can Naghi – the boy who shared their childhood, and the simple, nourishing meals cooked by his mother – help the sisters break free of Aeja’s worldview in which life is ultimately futile and love is always doomed?
A delicate stylist with an unflinching social gaze, in I’ll Go On Hwang Jungeun has crafted a poignant novel with an uncanny ear for the unspoken secrets and heartaches buried beneath daily life and family ritual. Above all, it is a stunning exploration of the intensity of early bonds – and the traces they leave on us as we grow up.