Brief review: Kim Sagwa – b, Book, and Me

b Book and Me - coverTo answer the obvious question that you’re going to be asked when trying to order this item at your local bookstore, “b” and “Book” are the names of two characters in the novel. We’re not told about how b came by her name, but Book is so called because he spends all his time reading, primarily as an escape from reality. Other characters include  “Glasses” and “Washington Hat”, whose names are self-explanatory. The main narrator herself is called Rang.

As explained in Paul Fulcher’s review of the book on Goodreads, the Korean title, 나b책, can be read as “butterfly book” – which explains the butterfly on the cover of the Korean edition. I’m afraid I can’t explain the cover design of the British edition – a rusty, possibly bloodied, pair of scissors and the cropped head of a daisy. The answer might be in the final third of the novel, which I didn’t read terribly diligently because, after a fairly good run of translated function this year with very few disappointments, I found this one ran out of ideas about half way through.

Kim Sagwa’s b, Book, and Me starts promisingly, and for most of half of its brief span holds the attention, with telling detail and insights into the inner life and thoughts of a child in her early teens. The novel centres around two schoolgirls in a provincial coastal town: Rang, who is constantly bullied by the boys in the school, and b, who manages to dispel the ruffians. After an essay in which Rang reveals that b is poor and has a sick sister, the two friends fall out. Rang, sadly, cannot see why it might be inappropriate to reveal her friend’s personal circumstances. Abandoned by her protector, Rang’s beatings get more severe, and b starts hanging out with Rang’s chief tormentor, until b too becomes a victim.

The novel is about the difficulties (and occasional simple pleasures) of childhood, set against the unappealing nature of the adulthood that awaits them.

“Those who no longer play in the water are called adults, adults work in the city. They are the ones who don’t see the Sky, who no longer think about the clouds, stars, seagulls, or the ocean…. it’s very depressing to think that someday I, too, will be an adult. (p20)

b Book and Me - Korean coverb comes from the poor part of town: her parents work in the local factory where there is persistent labour unrest. Rang is from a less deprived background – she is able to buy treats for b; but she is ignored by her parents who don’t seem to care whether she does her homework or not. “I’m tired, go away,” they would tell her, with a frown, on the occasions when they weren’t asleep. (p16)

The novel is divided into three sections and a brief coda, the first section told from Rang’s perspective, the second from b’s. Each of the first two sections seem to dissolve into a dream world, while the third section is one extended dream sequence of its own.

It’s a rare writer who can successfully incorporate a dream sequence into a novel and get away with it. Han Yujoo’s bizarre brick dream in The Impossible Fairy Tale is brief enough to intrigue you without boring you. But the third section in Kim Sagwa’s novel is longer than either of the preceding sections.  If you can make any sense of it, and muster up any sympathy for the narrative, you are a more patient reader than I.

More so than with Mina, I really wanted to like this book. The central characters are far more sympathetic. Even b, who mercilessly torments her terminally ill sister, is relatable in her own way. Neither b nor Rang have much support from their parents and are disgracefully ignored by their teachers who turn away when they are being bullied or molested. They are both virtually alone in the world, with nowhere but the ocean, or a mysterious cafe called Alone, where they can escape. In fact Rang wants to become the ocean. b wants to become a fish – because fish don’t need to pay any rent or go grocery shopping. But no matter how much you might want the two characters to succeed, that third section isn’t going to tell you much. For me, it’s just words on a page which I found myself skim-reading to see if there might be any nugget which might grab my attention. There wasn’t.

Finally though, congratulations to Two Lines Press for giving the original title and publication date prominently as the first item in the copyright page. I wish other publishers of translated fiction were as punctilious.

Kim Sagwa: b, Book, and Me
Translated by Sunhee Jeong
Two Lines Press, 2020, 134pp
Originally published as 나b책 by Changbi Publishers Inc, 2011.
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