Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, by Cho Nam-Joo

One day, Jiyoung speaks in the voice of another woman. The next day, she speaks in yet another woman’s voice. When Jiyoung’s strange ventriloquism doesn’t go away, her husband sends her to a psychiatrist to find out what’s young. Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, by Cho Nam-Joo (and translated by Jamie Chang), is the document her psychiatrist created after speaking with Jiyoung—complete with footnotes to relevant news articles and government statistics. The result is the portrait of an everywoman in modern Korea (albeit one who occasionally speaks in someone else’s voice).

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 presents a society that is slowly, painfully waking up to the inequalities between men and women. After a brief introduction that explains why Jiyoung is talking to a psychiatrist, the narrative takes us back to her childhood. She grew up in a smallish family. Her father was the main source of income, although her mother worked at a series of side jobs while taking care of three children and the home. Jiyoung’s paternal grandmother lives with them, always shown advocating for her grandson to have the most and the best of everything. In school, little acts of sexism further confine Jiyoung’s world. Girls have to dress conservatively, not go walking alone, stay in at night, etc. so that nothing happens to them. After college, Jiyoung has a hard time getting a job because all the best spots go to men and because all the employers expect young women to quit as soon as they become pregnant.

The only surprising thing in this novel is Jiyoung’s other voices. All the other moments of rebellion come from others who get fed up with the way things are. Jiyoung sometimes benefits from these forerunners but, mostly, she hits metaphorical walls over and over again. The result of Jiyoung’s inability to get a better job or share more responsibility for her home and child with her husband is a feeling of disgruntled helplessness. Other characters—sometimes “woke” men—will admit that things aren’t fair. But, invariably, they shrug and nothing changes.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is a book that holds a mirror up to Korean society. For American readers, this excellently translated story is an opportunity to compare how far (or not) our society has come since the 1970s. It is short, easily digested, and should make readers of any nationality utterly livid about the unspoken limits that are put on women, from their girlhood through middle-age.

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

The Court Dancer, by Kyung-Sook Shin

36327117Yi Jin, the protagonist of Kyung-Sook Shin’s lushly written The Court Dancer, is not just star-crossed in love. It seems like she’s star-crossed with history. As a court attendant to Empress Myeongseong, Yi Jin is witness to the turmoil Korea faced as it opened its borders to foreign powers. She was trained to be a dancer and lady of the court in the court’s final years and, because she is a court lady, she has little choice but to follower her king and queen’s directives until the bitter end. The Court Dancer is one of the most melancholy love stories I’ve read in a long time.

We meet our protagonist just as she is sailing away from Korea—she is being sent to France along with the departing French legate as his fiancée—before circling back to hear the story of how Yi Jin ended up on that steamship. As an orphan, Yi Jin didn’t have a lot of options. It was pure luck that she ended up being adopted by a woman with connections to the Queen. Her memory and personality earn Yi Jin a place at the court as a favored companion. Yi Jin’s luck unfortunately sours when the Queen hears a fortune teller’s warning that Jin might catch the king’s eye. The fact that the French legate falls in love with Jin seems like it might be a good thing, but he is clearly more in love with Jin than she is with him. To be blunt, the legate seems to be experiencing some serious Asiaphilia. He collects Jin the same way he collects Korean books and celadon.

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Empress Myeongseong
(Image via Wikipedia)

The Court Dancer follows Jin as she travels to France and back, while the increasing political violence in Korea begins to pull down the monarchy. There is a surprising amount of plot, description of settings and places, and character development in this novel. It feels like it’s about 200 more pages than it actually is. The book is not at all slow; it just feels like an incredibly rich reading experience. Jin, as a character, benefits from all the attention. We see Jin’s deep, self-sacrificing loyalty to the Empress, as well as the people she grew up with. Loyalty, even to the point of death, is an important part of this novel, frequently referenced by the appearance of the legate’s Jindo, a breed of dog that will only bond with one person and is rumored to mourn their masters if their masters die. In this book, we witness what happens when Jin and the Jindo are given away to people who do not understand that the “gift” really means that Jin and the Jindo are supposed to be cared for by their “masters” even as they are servants.

Because she is an orphan and because of her four years spent in France, Yi Jin often feels like a homeless outsider. There is a powerful scene in the novel when the legate takes Jin to the Louvre. She comments to him that it seems wrong for the Venus de Milo and the Nike of Samothrace to be in Paris when they belong on the Greek islands where they were found. The legate remarks with typical imperialist paternalism that the statues will be better cared for where they are now than if they had been left. Yet, the legate treats these statues and his Korean collection as trophies and curiosities. He doesn’t understand the meaning of Jin’s costume and motions in her court dancers. Jin’s battle for identity reflects her country’s battle for independence from China, Japan, and the other foreign powers. Where does Korea belong? Where does Jin belong?

The Court Dancer places more focus on Yi Jin than on the politics, so readers may want to spend some time on Wikipedia if they’re not familiar with the history. To be honest, the focus on Jin’s heart-wrenching story instead of politics (at least until very near the end of the book) might frustrate readers. We seem to only learn about events in retrospect. Not only do we learn about them in retrospect, but the politics are very fleetingly described while paragraphs are spent on Jin’s feelings and surroundings. That said, if readers want an in-depth story about a person in a place and time that doesn’t often show up in English language fiction, The Court Dancer is a beautiful if sorrowful read.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 7 August 2018.

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.

Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee

29983711In each generation of the family at the center of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, individuals must decide if they are going to try to fight others’ expectations or become what people expect them to be. In other hands, this book might be about the triumph of individualism and determination. This novel, however, takes a harder look about how difficult it really is to break loose from parental expectations, cultural strictures, and racism. I found it incredibly moving because of its emotional honesty, but an abrupt ending makes me reluctant to want to recommend the book to other readers or even give it an unequivocal stamp of approval. Seriously, the book just ends. I suddenly found myself in the acknowledgements because I thought there had to be more pages to the story.

Pachinko opens around the turn of the twentieth century, introducing us to the parents of one of the main characters. At times, the novel reads like a family history; it was only missing the documentation. Things start to slow down in the 1920s, when Sunja (whose parents we just met) comes onto the stage. Sunja’s family runs a boarding house on Yeongdo in what is now South Korea. They’re poor but managing. They might have carried on with the boarding house if it weren’t for Koh Hansu and, later, Baek Isak. Hansu seduces Sunja. He likes her innocence, but not in an icky, Lolita way. Rather, he is used to women who make their living as mistresses or hostesses, who ask for money and gifts in exchange for companionship and sex. When Sunja becomes pregnant and learns that Hansu is married, she surprises him by breaking up with him. An unwed pregnant woman is shocking to the morality of her village, but she refuses to take the easy route offered by Hansu. Instead, she marries a kind-hearted pastor (Isak) who learns about her situation and wants to save her from social ruin.

The rest of the novel follows Sunja’s family for the next sixty-plus years. We watch them migrate to Osaka, where they face implacable racism from the Japanese. We see them weather the Second World War. After that catastrophe, we witness Sunja’s sons rise in the pachinko industry and even become rich. Each generation’s struggle is to try and better themselves, either through education or money, to leave behind the stigma of being Korean in Japan. But no matter how hard they try, none of the family is able to succeed when they try to break out of what other people expect them to be. For example, Sunja’s son, Mozasu, becomes rich at pachinko only because it’s considered a job for crooks—which is what some Japanese people expect Koreans to be. Mozasu’s brother, who ironically also works in pachinko, fights hard against being seen as just another Korean in Japan, with tragic results.

What I liked most about Pachinko (apart from the setting) was the determination of the female characters. Sunja, in particular, bucks tradition, suffers for it, and yet keeps going. I found her deeply admirable. In comparison to the men in this novel, the women seem to be able to get their way through stubbornness. When one way is barred to them, they find another. They are never as successful as the men, but they don’t fall as far when circumstances turn against them as they invariable do for the men. Their lives are hard, full of pain and sorrow, but their determination means that they make permanent, though small, steps up the ladder to success.

If they can look past the stunningly abrupt ending, I think readers who like sinking into the lives of family members through the generations and/or are very interested in the Korean experience will enjoy Pachinko. Personally, the ending soured the whole experience for me. I feel cheated out of a resolution.

White Chrysanthemum, by Mary Lynn Bracht

34701167In 1992, South Korean women began a weekly demonstration that lasted more than twenty years. The Wednesday Demonstrations were a demand for an apology and compensation for the treatment of “comfort women“—women who were forced into sexual slavery before and during World War II. White Chrysanthemum, by Mary Lynn Bracht, tells the story of two Korean women. One woman, Hana, is captured by a Japanese officer who rapes her and sends her to a brothel in Manchuria. Her younger sister, Emi, attends the Wednesday Demonstrations decades later in an attempt to find out what happened to Hana.

Hana and Emi come from a long line of haenyeo, women who deep dive in the waters off of Jeju Island to feed and support their families. Emi was only a year into her training as a diver, preparing to join her sister and mother, when Hana was spotted in the water by a Japanese corporal one day in 1943. To save her sister from being abducted, Hana lied about being the only girl on the beach. The lie works, but it meant that Hana would experience horrors no one should ever face. The chapters that tell her story are heartbreaking. She struggles with abuse, physical hardship, suicidal thoughts, and the corporal’s delusions that they are in love.

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The Statue of Peace was created to honor and memorialize Korean women who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army.

Emi’s chapters, set in 2011, alternate with her sister’s. Emi survived World War II and the Korean War relatively intact. Now she is burdened with survivor’s guilt. She knows the general outlines of what happened to Hana, but she doesn’t know if Hana lived or died. Her children don’t know, and they’re more than a little bewildered by their mother’s actions and obsession with the Wednesday Demonstrations.

Bracht includes an author’s note at the end of White Chrysanthemum that give a bit more historical background on what happened to Korean women during the war and how the Korean and Japanese governments have spared over what should be done for them in the decades since. The author’s note also explains, if readers were not already aware of the history, how her protagonists represent the women themselves and their family members who were left behind to wonder about them ever since. White Chrysanthemum, I think, is extraordinarily articulate in how it deals with the emotional trauma of both women and the people they represent. It is delicate, thoughtful, but packs an emotional wallop that I’m going to be recovering from for a long time.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 30 January 2018.