Korean short story writer Yujoo's debut novel paints a brutal picture of childhood within a metafictional frame.
In "an ordinary residential area in a city outside Seoul" in 1998, two 12-year-old girls keep journals for their school assignment. One, described as "lucky," has 72 German watercolor pencils and a sweater with a deer on it. Her name is Mia. The other, "simply luckless," carries scars and bruises beneath her clothes and is referred to starkly as the Child; "she forces the stinging, burning pain aside by creating greater pain." Their classmates practice acts of casual sadism and play "the fainting game" at the back of the classroom, choking each other. "The children exchange meaningful, significant looks, but there is neither meaning nor significance here....They merely tear the wings off butterflies, they merely kill chicks." Something compels the Child to break in after school hours and add sentences such as "I hate you," "I want to kill, too," to the journals of her classmates. Bewildered and disturbed, the teacher threatens to involve the police, spooking the perpetrator into trying to cover her tracks. The resultant tragedy, heavily foreshadowed, has a grim inevitability; "There is no sentence that can save you." But the ponderousness distances the reader from an emotional involvement in the characters' lives. In the second section the book becomes increasingly self-referential: "I can package a certain story as a dream and tell it that way. I can disguise my childhood, and as I disguise it I can make allusions, and as I reveal details about the allusions, I can make them appear fictitious, and in this way, I can deceive you all." The fictional Child returns to the author/narrator to re-enact a pivotal scene. "Am I alive or am I dead?" her character asks.
Elements of the narrative loop and repeat, not always successfully, but at its best and most ambitious, this is a novel about language and stories and the power of the written word.