Familiar Things, by Hwang Sok-yong

33148672Bugeye doesn’t have much going for him at the beginning of Hwang Sok-yong’s Familiar Things (translated by Sora Kim-Russell). Things are so hopeless that when his mother takes a job as a trash picker at Seoul’s Flower Island landfill, it’s actually a step up for their little family. And, strangely enough, the trash heap turns out to be a land of opportunity for Bugeye in this strangely charming coming-of-age story.

Flower Island lives in the shadow of Seoul (which is not named, but I’m calling the city Seoul because all of the plot descriptions say that’s where this story takes place). It has it’s own culture and economy, latched on to the rest of Korean society. There is a strict pecking order among the groups of trash pickers, the recyclers, and other salvagers. Money makes it possible to move between the groups, but it takes a long time to accumulate enough to make the jump. The adults in Bugeye’s life worry about that more than he does. Like the other children of trash pickers, Bugeye is resigned to the fact that he will probably follow in his mother’s footsteps and that the rest of Korean society will be closed to him. When I started to read about his life, I was expecting another depressing tale of extreme poverty (like The Rent Collector by Camron Wright). Instead, I was as surprised as Bugeye was when Baldspot appeared on the scene and things started to get magical.

Baldspot makes it possible for Bugeye to have a childhood. While their parents pick through Seoul’s trash for anything they can sell, Baldspot introduces Bugeye to Headquarters, a club house built as a place for the local boys to escape to. He also introduces Bugeye to the strange lights and the mysterious Mr. Kims that only they can see. The boys run around the island and make friends with the more uncanny parts of the island, such as the woman who is occasionally possessed by the spirit of the island’s guardian spirit. The poverty of their families should have crushed them, but Bugeye and Baldspot have adventures that keep their minds (mostly) off of their worries about the future.

For me, Familiar Things walks a perfect path between realism and the supernatural. There’s enough realism that I didn’t get annoyed at the story for not taking the setting seriously enough, but enough magic that it wasn’t utterly depressing. I loved learning about the dokkaebi and what Flower Island was like before it became a landfill. And the way that that past is blended into Bugeye’s reality is seamless, with a beautiful,  bittersweet ending that gives the book a poignancy that I loved. This book is amazing.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.

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