Translated by: Sung Ryu
Publisher: Penguin, 2021
(exact 2021 publication date not confirmed)
An award-winning debut from Choi Eunyoung, Shoko’s Smile is a collection of five short stories and two novellas that explore the joys and heartbreaks of human relationships as they blossom and wither. Largely following the nuanced relationships of women—between friends, lovers, and family—the book is a microscopic, almost obsessive, study of complex emotions underlying their personal interactions. The title story “Shoko’s Smile” is a novella about the fraught friendship between a Korean and Japanese girl unfolding over thirteen years as they struggle with their dreams and families. “Hanji and Youngju” is a novella about a Korean geology student and a young Kenyan man who bond at a French monastery but inexplicably grow apart one day. In “A Song from Afar,” a young woman suffering depression grapples with the premature death of the woman she loves and travels to Russia to find the latter’s old roommate. In “Xin Chào, Xin Chào,” a Korean and Vietnamese family meet as friendly neighbors in Germany but an unexpected argument about the Vietnam War ruins their relationship forever. In “Sister, My Little Soonae,” the sisterly love between two women collapses when one of their husbands is convicted of collaborating with North Korea in a notorious 1975 trial. In “Secret,” the parents of a part-time teacher killed in the Sewol ferry sinking hide her death from her ailing grandmother. “Michaela” is about the many daughters and mothers staging protests for a full investigation of the Sewol disaster.
Choi Eunyoung refrains from sensationalizing the horrors of these historical events, keeping the stories firmly grounded in the emotional realities of the characters through sparse and understated prose. Reminiscent of Alice Munroe and Elena Ferrante, it is the force of emotions bleeding through Choi’s language that disarms, breaks, and warms the reader’s heart. Ultimately, Shoko’s Smile gently arouses in us an empathy for the pain of others and ourselves.