Book review: Han Yujoo – The Impossible Fairy Tale

by Philip Gowman on 13 November, 2017

in Book Reviews, Event reports and reviews, Korean literature in translation

Fairy tale UK + US covers

Han Yujoo: The Impossible Fairy Tale
translated by Janet Hong
Graywolf Press, MN, USA 192pp / Tilted Axis Press, UK 352pp / 2017
Originally published as 불가능한 동화 (pub 문학과지성사, 2013)
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Sometimes, I like having my brain stretched when reading a book: something to get stuck into, to make me think. But there are limits. I don’t like being made to feel inadequate. And that’s the way I feel after putting down The Impossible Fairy Tale.

Leave on one side the first two chapters, the first of which is only nine words long in its English translation, which describe a dog swimming or floating down a river. I have no notion what bearing they have on the rest of the book, though one thing I learned from the London book launch at the Free Word Centre is that maybe there’s some wordplay involved: the central character of the novel is simply known as The Child (애). If we go from Child to This Child (그 애) and contract the two words into one we get 개: Dog. So “Child” and “Dog” are somehow connected. But whether this information is useful to the rest of the book I’m not sure.

Having emerged the other side of those two chapters we launch into a fast-paced story which lasts until about 60% of the way through the book. This main story immediately absorbs you and pulls you along with it: a tale set in a classroom in a regular school, the sort of classroom that you can visualise from your Korean movie-watching. It feels familiar, but the people who inhabit this classroom are anything but.

Impossible Fairy Tale Korean cover

Impossible Fairy Tale: the original Korean cover

We start by focusing on one girl, Mia, who is deemed to be fortunate because she has two fathers that compete for her love and affection by showering her with gifts, though her description as “fortunate” seems to be loaded with irony or foreboding. Then the focus shifts to another girl, a girl who seems to shrink anonymously into the background – to such an extent that she is known throughout the book only as The Child. At one point you are given a hint has to what the initial letters of her name might be, but in a revealing chapter which lists out all the children in the class and gives a paragraph or two about the past or future lives of each of them, there is no name which could represent The Child. She is seemingly invisible even to the author in that particular chapter.

The Child suffers all sorts of physical abuse from her parents who are completely absent from the narrative: the only reason we know they are present, lurking menacingly in the background, is from the wounds and bruises that scar The Child’s body. The Child simply regards this abuse as part of her daily life experience. But perhaps as a result she is desensitised to violence and all too able to inflict suffering on other creatures. The classroom itself is a place of violence: the rougher students like to play a game that involves strangling each other; and a poor kid with learning difficulties is mercilessly picked on.

For some unspecified reason, perhaps to emerge from her invisibility, The Child decides to make her mark, almost literally, on her classmates, by sneaking into the classroom at night and adding weird sentences to the journals which their homeroom teacher requires them to maintain. This prank triggers a sequence of events that has tragic consequences. At one point The Child tries to contain matters by stealing the journals and hiding them, but that only makes things worse. The story hurtles to its violent conclusion.

And then we suddenly then have a complete shift of viewpoint. The focus turns to the author of the novel with some bizarre dream sequences and some semi-autobiographical episodes in which the novel’s author engages with The Child in the main story, albeit several years later. In this second half, again it is a journal that seems to be the key that might potentially unlock the secrets of the narrative; but somehow the secrets are out of reach. What is the significance, for example, of the two dream sequences? In the first of these, the author is caught in an ever-intensifying snowstorm and is in search of the most perfectly formed snowflake. In the second, she is in a mysterious world made of brick in which she debates about the most beautiful word in existence with an argumentative brick horse.

The power of the written word is emphasised by a macabre fact that the children share between themselves in the first half of the book: that a fountain pen, if dropped from a height at the right angle onto a person’s head, is capable of killing someone. A pen can kill. Words added to a journal can prompt a chain of destruction.

The written word, for a child who is invisible, ignored and living on the margins, is possibly the only means of communication. But words need to be used carefully: The Child needs to write her own journal in her own private code to disguise the tortures dished out by her parents and avoid further punishment. Words, in the hands of Han Yujoo, take on their own life as onomatopoeic sequences generating playful but nonsensical ideas.

Han Yujoo talking about An Impossible Fairytale

Han Yujoo talking about An Impossible Fairytale with Deborah Smith and Houman Barekat (photo: Diya Mitra / diyaonkorea.com )

Often, a book launch can be relied upon to provide additional colour or background to enable a reader to understand more about the publication. Certainly Hwang Jung-eun’s talk about One Hundred Shadows enabled me to appreciate the novel more, even though I didn’t particularly warm to it. And Han Kang’s appearance at Foyles made what was already an emotional read something even more so. Somehow, that sort of magic was not present at The Impossible Fairy Tale’s book launch – a combination of lack of time, lack of in-depth questions and lack of interpreter for Han Yujoo, who spoke most of the time in English.

So if you like a novel that makes you think, this is for you. This is writing that raises lots of questions, and leaves you to supply your own answers.

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