This is the kind of book people think of when they think of a novel. Poignant and somber, it deals with loss, grief, memory, and the futility of making promises about “someday.” It’s also depressing as hell. Lots of people die in this, either by suicide, homicide that looks like suicide, or suicide in a particularly horrible and painful way. Most of these deaths come after the person had already lost the thing most dear in the world to them, sometimes more than once.
This novel reads like a disjointed memoir of an aging English Literature professor. She talks about meeting Miru and Miru’s friend whose name I can’t remember, and about Dahn, her childhood buddy who joins the army. She’ll talk about the day she met her friend, and then shift abruptly to several years after that person’s death, so the reader gets this jarring sense that time is so fleeting, and only memory remains. And not even memory, because the characters are always journaling, photographing, trying to keep hold of their few happy times for as long as they can. The sense of loss engendered by this technique was one of the most brilliant things about this novel.
This may be the only book I’ve ever read by a Korean writer, and I missed some things because of my lack of familiarity with Korean culture. I mean, I’ve been there, and I have Korean friends, but I don’t know what mallow roots are or how you make soup with them. I also don’t know the trees they are talking about, despite my passion for gardening. I can picture the temple she hides in to escape the rain, but I don’t know the neighborhoods of the city (which I presume is Seoul.) I can guess that the fact that the cat “Emily Dickenson” is white is symbolic of death, but I have no idea what the significance is that Four of the characters have “Yoon” as a name. Surely that was intentional?
One of the consistent backdrops of the novel is the constant rioting. In the afterward, the author explains why she wanted this civil unrest to be a backdrop without making the political situation part of the novel. I’m sure that’s a valid reason, but I felt disjointed to have characters risk their lives and in some cases lose their lives to protest something I didn’t understand. Jobless college students who alternate between railing against nebulous injustices and waxing poetic about poetry are not terribly sympathetic to me, especially because they are often the agents of their own misery.
I liked that it was about Korea, because I know very little about Korea. All the characters are unbelievably introverted, introspective, and awkwardly social. How much of that is “Korean” and how much is “People who live in literary novels?” I also liked the sheer skill of the author, and the translation was very well done. I can’t say I was thrilled about the subject matter. Literary professors/students are a group whose life experiences are (unsurprisingly) well-mined by literary writers. People who get passionate about poetry and literature are thin on the ground in real life, but as common as pigeons in novels. So when I read about people who exchange books of poetry with each other, my brain says “I only see these people in novels. These are imaginary people.” Feeling like they were all fictional characters made it slightly easier to deal with their tragic lives and deaths.
If you like depressing but poignant literary novels, you’ll like this one. If you want people to be impressed by how serious your reading tastes, be seen with this cover. If you want something cheerful, look elsewhere.