A successful yet troubled South Korean writer looks back on her teenage years and her struggle to work, learn, and survive during "solitary days lived inside an industrial labor genre painting.”
Drawn in part from its author's own experiences, this novel by prizewinner Shin (I’ll Be Right There, 2014, etc.) takes an unsparing look at the near-Victorian working and living conditions suffered in her country during the late 1970s. The unnamed narrator leaves her rural home at age 16 to take a job in an electronics factory in Seoul, where efforts to unionize are resisted by the company at every turn. Her living accommodation is “a lone room” (one of several incantatory phrases in the book), badly heated and ventilated, and shared with several other family members. Money is tight, food is scarce, and the only way to get ahead is to study at night after a full day on the production line. Shin’s unemotional delivery and understated yet devastating perspective on her country’s expectations and norms are familiar from her earlier novels, but this book’s grim glimpse into the lives of factory girls is notably haunting. The narrator is fortunate: she is encouraged by some kind figures, including a teacher who gives her a novel and urges her to write, and she clings to her dream of creativity. Now, however, looking back 16 years later, famous and materially comfortable in a transformed society, the narrator still feels that the wounds of her youth are unhealed, notably those caused by the tragic death of a friend, which “turned me into an infinite blank.” Yet the act of writing this book and the poetic final fugue suggest release and restoration are possible.
There’s a hypnotic quality to this melancholy coming-of-age story described as “not quite fact and not quite fiction.” Allusive and structurally sophisticated, it melds Shin’s characteristic themes of politics, literature, and painful experience into a mysteriously compelling whole.