A fellow watcher of Korean dramas and also an avid reader responded to my review of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian on a Facebook readers group neatly summarised what I had begun to suspect after immersing myself into Korean novels – that the shows and books present divergent views of contemporary South Korean society. The former shines with goodness, sincerity and easy romance while the latter shows the gritty and not so pretty underbelly of a nation that has undergone a major transformation in the last few decades.
My two recent Korean novels awakened me to the variety of stories told by contemporary women writers who honestly describe the condition of women in all patriarchal cultures that have galloped on many fronts but have only created more strife and burden for its women.
If I had your face by Frances Cha
Set against the backdrop of a glittering Seoul in which money (or lack thereof) informs the lives and morals of its citizens, the story takes us into the lives of five women, each bearing a burden that is crushing but they endure.
The enviably beautiful Kyuri, who has achieved her stunning look through expensive and painful surgery works in a room salon where she is paid to drink and accompany wealthy men who socialise after work hours. Her roommate Miho is an artist with a rich boyfriend but instead of rejoicing, she is filled with guilt and sadness in equal measure.
Across from them are two girls who live like sister, except that one can’t speak and one can’t wait to get surgery and enter the world that Kyuri inhabits. Ara, the hairdresser, is obsessed with a K-pop star and uses her job as a hairstylist to avoid her parents who live in a provincial town. Sujin, her childhood friend and current roommate share not just a rundown apartment but also memories of the day when Ara went mute.
Wonna lives with her husband one floor below the other four girls, hoping against hope that she will not lose her pregnancy while wondering how she will shoulder the responsibilities of her baby in her permanently perilous financial situation.
The book is a hard hitting look at the lives of people in a society where the have’s and havenot’s exist in parallel worlds and when they intersect, it leads only to unpleasantness and heartbreak.
As Sujin recovers from massive facial surgery, a life-changing experience for which she has saved for years from her job at a nail salon, the lives of each of the other girls twists and turns into further complications. Individually the girls face all kinds of pressures – from having to consume alcohol to appease the clients, to paying off debts that never decrease, from forever being considered inferior in the eyes of the wealthy to not receiving any kind of support at work, the story highlights all the ways in which women suffer.
Yet, the underlying theme of this fantastic debut novel is friendships among women. Not a single one of them has a perfect life and neither do they see a future of an easy life in a traditional sense, but they still power through. The absence and/or gaps in their biological families are filled in small and large ways through the connections the women have with each other. With small favors and generous gestures and by always keeping an eye out for each other, there is an acceptance between them that makes the hardships of their real lives bearable.
My opinion: A fast-paced read that is engrossing and informative without being preachy. Pick it up for your next flight or beach read.
Please look after mother by Kyung-sook Shin
Translated by Chi-Young Kim
Audiobook narrated by Mark Bramhall, Samantha Quan, Janet Song, Bruce Turk
A million copies of this book were sold within ten months of publication in South Korea. Its English translation won the Man Asian Literary prize, has been published in 29 countries and sold over two million copies worldwide. Does this novel about a sixty-nine year old woman who goes missing one day in Seoul subway station deserve this kind of success?
Although I had borrowed the print copy from the Singapore library, I preferred to listen to the audiobook because of the different voices of the narrators who read each section and made the story much more real and heart-wrenching.
Some stories evoke emotions in readers that may or may not have been the intention of the author while writing it. This one made me angry, wistful, tearful and also thankful as I eagerly lapped up the sparse, matter of fact writing style which presented a picture that was hard to ignore or digest.
As Park So-nyo mysteriously disappears one day, separated from her husband at a busy train station, a desperate search begins. Through the voices of her older daughter, eldest son, husband and husband, the hardscrabble life of a woman who has devoted herself to her family is revealed in heartbreaking detail. From working in the fields to cooking, cleaning, birthing and then caring for her children, always putting the wellbeing of everyone else ahead of her own, we get to know a woman who has stoically lived a difficult life without bitterness or ill-will.
Is she a saint? A martyr? A perfect woman? No.
Despite her stellar qualities that are gradually unveiled through the reminiscences of her family, we see a very human person who has her own wishes and ambitions for her children but also her regrets. It is impossible to live a life that is not colored by happiness as well as tragedy and Park So-nyo has seen everything. In fact there is so much to remember that the greater tragedy occurs as she descends into dementia, a fact that the entire family has been aware of in varying degrees but reluctant to acknowledge or treat.
Although the second person narration was a bit distracting at times, I loved every part of this book and consider it one of the best novels depicting the life of women in patriarchal cultures who suffer yet enable the next generation to leap higher than they could ever imagine.
My opinion: If you are a mother, love your mother, or seek to understand your mother, read this book.