Korean books to watch for this spring



“Love in the Big City” by Park Sang-young, translated by Anton Hur (Grove Press)

Park Sang-young’s queer coming-of-age tale “Love in the Big City” (translated by Anton Hur) is one of two Korean novels shortlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize. Along with “Cursed Bunny” by Bora Chung, Park’s first novel and first book to be translated into English, highlights the diversity of contemporary Korean literature. Chung’s short story collection tackles a variety of styles and concepts, from surreal horror and dark fairy tales to science fiction and ghost stories. His stories are perfectly crafted, while the writing is deceptively simple and often downright chilling. By comparison, “Love in the Big City” is a much more linear affair. It tells the story of a young gay man who navigates love, sex, career, and prejudice in the bustling, hypermodern capital of socially conservative South Korea, Seoul.

In a 2019 interview published in Words without Borders, Park said, “Key words would basically be queer and Catholicism, women, abortion, STDs and economic class. I guess it’s about the emptiness that anyone living in a big city these days feels in their daily life. When the novel was published in Korea in 2019, it caused a stir by connecting with readers’ jaded experiences of big city, millennial life. The novel is divided into four sections, highlighting different periods in the life of the narrator, Park.

In the first section, Park recounts his romantic misadventures as an undergrad and his friendship with another stranger, Jaehee. In Part 2, Park, in her early thirties, reflects on the breakdown of her first significant relationship with a man ten years her senior. This chapter also reveals Park’s rocky relationship with his deeply religious mother, who institutionalized him as a teenager for kissing another neighborhood boy. With the elderly mother now suffering from cancer, Park is forced to take on the role of reluctant caretaker. The third chapter of the novel sees Park finding something like true love, while in the fourth and final section he seems more lost and discouraged than ever as he drifts from hookup to hookup.

Park is an engaging storyteller who offers readers both comedic and deeply poignant insights into life and love, family and career. Translator Anton Hur does a great job capturing the humor and sharpness of Park’s voice. Her story is both a guide and a celebration of queer millennial life in Korea. As writer Park explains in his afterword, the best comments he received when the novel was published in Korea were the comments that said, “Thank you for writing about us, about me.”

“Lemon” by Kwon Yeo-sun, translated by Janet Hong (Other Press)

Kwon Yeo Sun’s “Lemon” (translated by Janet Hong) was also released in Korea in 2019, and it also taps into contemporary fears around privilege, economic class, and violence against women. The English translation was presented by its publisher as a literary detective novel similar to the film “Parasite”.

“Lemon” begins in 2002 when, against the backdrop of the World Cup in South Korea, a strikingly beautiful student named Hae-on is brutally murdered. The case quickly becomes a national obsession called High School Beauty Murder. There are initially two suspects, both male classmates of Hae-on. Shin Jeong-jun comes from a privileged and affluent background, while Han Man-u comes from poverty and hardship. The boys were the last two people to see Hae-on alive, and as such, both are suspects.

In the book’s first chapter, the murdered girl’s sister reflects on Man-u’s treatment at the hands of the police. “The detective reportedly weighed Han Man-u’s narrow, pinched face against Shin Jeong-jun’s clean features, the former’s cheap World Cup t-shirt against the latter’s IVY Club button-down shirt, a single mother against a accounting father, and the 20th in class against the top 10 in the whole class, as well as the credibility of the witnesses providing the alibis. Rather than trying to find the real culprit, the detective would have thought about who he could – or should – run over and become the culprit. And that’s exactly what he tried to do.

The theme of privilege is central to the novel, and the analysis of class and wealth disparities between families continues throughout. Over the next seven chapters and 17 years, the reader will learn what happened on the day of Hae-on’s murder and how several people connected to the event were affected. Those expecting a traditional crime novel might be disappointed.

“Lemon” is an altogether trickier matter. One of the pleasures is certainly piecing together what happened, but Kwon uses the crime genre to explore grief, guilt, revenge, and privilege. The clever structure of the book shows how trauma reverberates through lives and time and is never truly left behind or forgotten.

“The Cabinet” by Kim Un-su, translated by Sean Lin-Halbert (Angry Robot)

Kim Un-su’s elegant sci-fi novel “The Cabinet” (translated by Sean Lin Halbert) is a collection of stories about a group of individuals who may represent the next stage of human evolution and an employee desk clerk, Kong Deok-gun, reluctantly. responsible for monitoring them. Kong’s mission is to investigate, support, and record the existence of an increasing number of strange and impossible people popping up in Korea and around the world, referred to as “symptoms.” The novel is structured as a series of interconnected short stories with Kong as the common thread tying everything together. He encounters a “symptom”, hears his story and moves on to the next one. There are “time skippers” who lose years of their life in the blink of an eye. There are people called “torpeurs” who sleep for months at a time and a man with a ginko tree growing on his finger.

The novel has a satirical edge and targets contemporary Korean and global society with the “symptoms” highlighting the dysfunctional aspects of our modern lives. A “symptom” tells Kong that “capitalism’s most enduring legacy will be angst. Insurance, stocks, real estate, investments… The whole modern economy is based on anxiety… it’s a vicious circle. Thus, we are always anxious, internally and externally. Some readers might be put off by the lack of momentum in terms of plot and narrative. But Kim is much more interested in satirical commentary on the modern world. His stories, driven by humor and a vivid imagination, are increasingly relevant and insightful a decade and a half after they were first published.

By Barry Welsh ([email protected])

Barry Welsh is an Assistant Professor at Dongguk University. It can be found on YouTube at the Seoul Book Club hosted by Barry Welsh.

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Beth Eunhee Hong
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By Korea Herald ([email protected])

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