Shoko’s Smile: Stories, a collection of seven long-ish short stories, is Korean writer’s Choi Eunyoung‘s English debut, deftly and beautifully translated by Sung Ryu. I’m only on my fourth story, but already, I’m dying to write about how much I love it.
Shoko’s Smile: Stories is one of those books that I want to share with everybody, but at the same time, part of me wants to keep it as a hidden gem. I see myself in all the four stories that I’ve read thus far, and it’s taking a lot of restraint on my part not to highlight almost the whole book. So many parts where I found myself nodding, and feeling the same emotions as the characters inside. I bought the e-book version, so I feel very liberated to do all the annotations and highlighting I want without thinking about sullying the book! 🙂
There’s something magical about Choi’s stories, brought to life in English by Sung Ryu. It felt like the book saw through me on so many levels, and there were many moments in the books where I thought I saw myself in the characters – a similar moment in my past, my thoughts, the deepest and, sometimes, darkest ones). While I read pretty fast in general, I’m taking my time with this book, partly because it takes me a couple of days to fully digest the stories, and my own memories/past that the story awakened. I had to unpack and digest that as well.
The language used (at least in the English version) is simple and plain – no flowery and convoluted metaphors, no dreadfully pretentious bombastic vocabulary, nothing too abstract. Yet, it gets me right in the heart (gut). I’ve come to the conclusion that both of them are probably keen observers of life, because I have no idea how else they can write (and translate) some of these moments/thoughts that I feel (and struggle to put in words) in such simple, plain and effective language. I’m in awe, really.
Each story forces me to confront a part of myself and I find that oddly comforting and liberating. It’s as if the book helped me put in words, or to realise, what I’ve been feeling (deep down).
I thought of writing a review for the entire book, but my thoughts on Shoko’s Smile (the first story) is fast becoming a convoluted mess of thoughts that I thought I’ll put it out here first. Yes, and to encourage you to get the book sooner than later 🙂
There will be some spoilers in the review below, so if you are looking for a non-spoiler version, please do not read beyond the line break.
Get it from Penguin Random House.
I found myself in the title story Shoko’s Smile and there were so much that I could relate to. To me, the story was centred on the raw and vulnerable sides of being human and the desperate desire to upkeep an appearance of normalcy despite it all. We try hard to mask ourselves, but yet fail to see that others are also doing the same and we continue to judge them for who they are on the surface.
Soyu’s vulnerability and her need to feel that odd sense of superiority over her friends and peers stood out to me. It’s not a great trait, but instead of despising her for it, I felt that I could empathise with her and I found it oddly comforting to have a character that felt so.. human. While we don’t like to admit it, I think this is true that instead of recognising our own vulnerabilities, we (sometimes) try to cover for it by revelling in a warped sense of superiority and feeling the need to feel justified and comforted that our choices are “better” than the others.
Another part that stood out for me was when at the start, the readers are told Shoko always said “someday”. It foreshadowed that Shoko would not be able to achieve any of those goals set out, but the readers are in for a surprise when it turned out that Shoko did achieve them in her own way and pace, even though the road was not smooth.
It seemed to me that the strangest of strangers were family.
Soyu, the narrator of the story, found herself bewildered by the positive ‘change in characters’ of her usually socially awkward, lethargic grandfather and mother at the arrival of Shoko, a visiting student from Japan who would be their homestay guest for two weeks. Her feelings of hurt and slight resentment mixed with jealousy felt so real to me, and it reminded me that it was also jarring to see my own family (and perhaps myself) behaving in a much nicer way to strangers and outsiders. It felt so frustrating to see that I’m the only one seeing the ugly side of things (and people) while everyone’s else would be saying “wow your family is so nice / you’re so lucky”. But now that I think of it, family is the only place where we can be unreserved in unleashing our rawest self, and that is something that is fortunate and unfortunate at the same time.
I found myself somewhere in the story, and oddly, I feel very comforted by it.
It’s definitely gonna be a story that I will return to every now and then.
Get it from Penguin Random House.