I picked this novel off the reading pile as a stopgap while I wait for whatever comes out next after Kim Jiyoung. Kim Yideum is best known for her poetry, described by the American publisher as “known for their grotesque and provocative motifs”. Based on my experience with some Korean and Korean-American poets such as Julayne Lee and Kim Hyesoon I was expecting something prickly, abrasive and hard going. The cover, featuring a pair of sanitary towels, somewhat reinforced my preconception. (Interestingly, the Korean cover depicts a toy fish that has a minor role in the story – something less likely to stir an initial reaction from a casual browser in a bookstore). But I need not have worried, because this is an engaging novel in which, even though there isn’t much of a plot – it has more of a feel of a road movie – there is plenty of incident and altogether you don’t want to put it down.
The novel is set at the tail end of the 1980s protests. Roh Tae-woo has just been elected president, but the protests on university campuses are still going on. Jeong Yeoul, the central character, is an art student in her first year at university. She has recently left home after a falling-out with her father and stepmother, and has moved in with a girlfriend in the year above her at university, with whom she is in a relationship.
Yeoul is refreshingly feisty and independent, not wanting to bend to anyone’s will or to comply with conventions. She’s someone who wants to make her own way in life and not be dependent on anyone else (or certainly not dependent on a man), despite her somewhat precarious financial state. But when her roommate unexpectedly commits suicide, so soon after her step-brother dies, Yeoul’s life takes some unpredictable turns.
Yeoul is unlucky with a couple of men in her life. She has a fractious relationship with her father. And the son of the cafe owner where Yeoul has a part-time job to help with her tuition fees turns out to be a violent sexual predator who keeps a diary of his victims. But when a slightly older, wealthy man takes an interest in her, offering her marriage and financial security, Yeoul decides not to take the easy option, even though the man is clearly genuinely besotted with her, to the extent of undergoing a somewhat painful operation for her sake. Yeoul is a free spirit: she’s not averse to experimenting with a new partner (her views on virginity are somewhat different to his) but doesn’t want to settle down any time soon.
Another refreshing thing about this novel is that it’s not set in Seoul. When, early in the novel (p47), the central character goes on a bus trip to Sancheong via Jinju I was about to write a stiff letter to the editor to point out that Sancheong is northwest of Jinju, and if you’re coming from Seoul the bus stops in Sancheong half an hour before it gets to Jinju. It’s only if you’re coming from somewhere like Busan that you would go to Jinju on the way to Sancheong. A few lines later in the same paragraph the translator commits an historical howler (when she refers to the defeated presidential candidates in the 1987 election as “previous presidents” Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung), so I was ready to get indignant about a geographical howler too. But sure enough, as the narrative progresses you realise that actually, yes, the main action is taking place in Busan. The characters, among other places, pay a visit to Jagalchi Fish Market and Taejongdae observatory on Yeongdo during the course of the novel. Somehow, knowing the setting is not the metropolis gives the whole narrative a more relaxed feeling, even though Jeong Yeoul herself can get pretty up-tight. Adding to the interest of the narrative are the frequent references to various protest songs sung on campus.
It’s hard not to root for Yeoul as she tries to make her way in life, and this is probably a novel to which I shall return to enjoy again.