Curating a list of translated Korean fiction that I’ve read and my quick thoughts on them. Titles with links will bring you to the full review post.
Korean Literature in Translation
Our Happy Time by Gong Ji-young (tr. Sora Kim-Russell)
A must-read. With a tissue box within reach. A book that I’ll re-read time and again, painful and yet hopeful at the same time.
The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness by Kyung-sook Shin (tr. Jung Ha-Yun)
Not quite fact, not quite fiction, but something in between. The books tells us this much, but it was so emotionally raw and intense that I’m more inclined to think it’s fact. Or maybe I wished it’s fiction, as it seemed too much for anyone to bear. You would learn a lot about Korean’s modern history through this one, told from the perspective of an ordinary citizen. Must-read.
The Old Garden by Hwang Sok-yong (tr. Jay Oh)
A love story set against the backdrop of the anti-government movement by students (the Gwangju Uprising) in 1980 and its aftermath, all the way to the present day. History is never a thing of the past. I feel it keenly in this novel. Another novel where I learnt a lot about Korean’s history in that period. Another must-read.
The Law of Lines by Hye-young Pyun (tr. Sora Kim-Russell)
There were several parts that spoke to me, and there were some scenes where I felt called out. I highlighted so many lines in the book. Yes, another must-read.
Almond by Won-pyung Sohn (translated by Sandy Joosun Lee)
Optimism in the darkest of situations. We may be different, a monster even, but all we need is someone to reach out to us, to never give up on us. That is all that makes a difference. An unlikely friendship between two ‘monsters’. A short but powerful read.
Diary of a Murderer by Young-ha Kim (tr. Krys Lee)
Mind-blown. I’m into a certain genre of k-movies and this one just fits it to a T. Yunno, the gritty, dark, bordering or downright psychotic Korean movies à la Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy. I just found out that there’s actually a movie remade of this novel and yup, top on my list now. I need more recommendations for novels of a similar vibe.
The Human Acts by Han Kang (tr. Deborah Smith)
Powerful and heartbreaking. A semi-fictional story set against the background of a real history event, the 1980 Gwangju Uprising, it is a powerful reminder of how death is not the end of tragedy, but a continuous torture for those who live on, and history can never be quite the thing of the past. The first arc / act of the story follows a boy’s search for his friend’s corpse and he ends up volunteering at the local community centre which has turned into a temporary morgue. In the second arc of the story, the most heartbreaking one for me, we see the story from the perspective of the soul/ghost of the friend, as he narrates looking at his own body rotting in the pile of bodies and later on, sensing the death of the boy miles away. The remaining acts are told from the perspective of those the boy met in his search and we see the horrors experienced by those who live on, years later. It’s a hard book to revisit, but one that I would come back to time and again.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang (tr. Deborah Smith)
I like dark, psychotic stories but even this was kind of hard to stomach (it’s a compliment). Disturbing. I willed myself to stop reading it but my eyes remained glued to the book, wanting to find out how much more disturbing things will become.
Please Look After Mom by Kyung-book Shin (tr. Chi-young Kim)
I’m on the fence for this one. This was one of the earliest Korean translated fiction I’ve read and I have the original novel in Korean too. I may have to give it another try but I remembered not quite liking it as I thought the portrayal of the mother as selfless, giving tirelessly was too one-dimensional and dare I say, idealistic. It feeds the stereotype that mothers sacrifice themselves for the family/children and are under-appreciated all the time. But… there are bad mums in the world too.
The Court Dancer by Kyung-sook Shin (tr. Anton Hur)
I love this, it made me cry. This was probably the book that got me sinking hard and fast into the world of Korean translated fiction.
I’m Waiting for You and Other Stories by Kim Bo-young (tr. Sophie Bowman, Sung Ryu)
This has set such a high expectation of sci-fi books for me. It’s a breathtaking cinematic experience, and I love it. The author, translators and original reader notes add to the whole experience of reading the book.
The Plotters by Un-su Kim (tr. Sora Kim-Russell) | 설계자들 by 김언수
Library, literature, assassins, plotters. What’s not to love? Korean noir is one of my fav genres and I can’t wait to see it adapted to a film.
Love in the Big City by Sang Young Park (tr. Anton Hur)
This is a story of a gay man living in Seoul. So much heart, rawness, realism in this. Definitely one of my top reads in 2021.
Shoko’s Smile by Choi Eunyoung (tr. Sung Ryu)
‘Healing’ is an overrated word sometimes. But that’s the first thing that comes to my mind for this collection of stories. A book that I would return to time and again, and I see no higher praise than that.
I Have the Right to Destroy Myself by Young-ha Kim (tr. Chi-young Kim)
I really enjoyed some of Kim’s works but the heavy reference to art pieces here is pretty much lost on me. The novella reads like a noir movie, but one with overlapping timelines and open endings. It’s intriguing, but there’s just too many unanswered questions, or maybe I just don’t get it.
Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung (tr. Anton Hur)
Some stories just stick and there are a couple of stories in this collection that I’ll chew over from time to time for the rest of my life.
I Want to Die but I Want to Eat Tteokbokki by Back Sehee (tr. Anton Hur)
Part self-help book and part memoir, it’s not a book I’ll typically read. Bought it because it’s an Anton Hur translation 🙂
Violets by Kyung-sook Shin (tr. Anton Hur)
Reading Violets is like experiencing slow-burning violence along with a deep sense of melancholy, suffocating to the point that everything feels ironically ethereal. So much to takeaway from this powerful novel by Kyung-sook Shin, but for me, it’s the realisation that loneliness is a synonym of violence, and that a sense of abandonment often bleeds into self-alienation that it becomes a chicken and egg issue. Are we made lonely, or did we bring loneliness to ourselves?
Flowers and plants, which I have long associated with calm and peace, take on despair, disquiet and repressed desires, and I feel myself needing to disengage with the prose once in a while to breathe again.