Book review: Kim Joo-young — Stingray

StingrayKim Joo-young: Stingray
Dalkey Archive 2013, 124pp
Translated by Inrae You Vinciguerra and Louis Vinciguerra.
Originally published as 홍어, Munidang, Seoul, 1998
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Stingray has the accolade of being allocated #1 in Dalkey Archive‘s set of 10 Korean novels translated into English. It happens to be the third I’ve picked up. The first two were real winners. I’m wondering, if I’d been a stranger to Korean fiction and picked this one up first, would I have explored any further?

Perhaps it’s a novel best read in the original: the praise for the book on the back cover says how “the author has managed a perfect reproduction of the way people spoke in the late premodern era, relying on circumlocution rather than direct statement.”

Kim Joo young
Kim Joo-young (Image Source: Kyobo Books)

The period is the 1950s, though really the age is timeless, with nothing much to pin the novel to any particular decade. We are clearly in rural Korea, before the Saemaeul movement (the country shacks are still thatched) but after the invention of the sewing machine. A womanising husband abandons his wife and early teenage son. Their lives are put on hold as they wait for him to return, if indeed he ever will. Meanwhile, the novelist presents us with the relationship between mother and son, which is not always harmonious, set in the context of a village where, because there is no man in the house, they are second class citizens.

Hongeo
The Korean version of the novel
In such circumstances one might expect the boy, who narrates the story, to find himself rapidly growing up to fill the vacuum, but instead he stays surprisingly immature and petty, though he does develop a crush on a bar girl who finds herself lodging in the house for a while.

The blurb on the back of the book says that Kim describes the work as “a critical biography of my loving mother”; though at the time his own behaviour is not above reproach, and he is probably to be commended for his honesty.

For a Western reader, this novel, while a pleasant read, is not going to break into the mainstream. Instead, you are urged to try No One Writes Back or At Least We Can Apologize first, before exploring the less modern sensibilities of Stingray.

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