Assured, thoughtful stories of daily life in modern Korea.
What constitutes a good family? In traditional Korean society, it seems, it must have at its center a woman who has no life other than to serve her husband and children. So it is that, in the opening story of Seo’s octet, a woman already given to self-sacrifice, her husband demanding that she clean up after a covey of messy pigeons that she detests, must contend with ovarian cancer, a flock of white-coated doctors who won’t tell her anything useful, and a useless son who ranges between rage and incomprehension. Seo’s stories find the worm in the apple of ordinary lives, pondering what happens when we examine them too deeply—as, for instance, when a teenage girl begins to spy on her father, certain that he’s having an affair with “Lady Unidentified.” Given that Dad is afraid of insects—“I’m not just talking about disgusting-looking insects like thumb-sized cockroaches and centipedes,” our teenager hastens to add. “He’s afraid of beetles, crickets, grasshoppers, and even butterflies”—it seems uncharacteristically daring of him to contemplate such a fling, and the daughter comes to regret opening the door into his private life. Self-delusion is sometimes to be preferred to self-awareness; when an arrogant doctor becomes a patient, his carefully constructed world comes tumbling down, and he has to decide whether there’s any gain in becoming a better person, even as a writer confronting the meta-fact that “literature may be destined to live on the periphery of society” has to puzzle over whether it’s even worth it to pick up pen and go on. Seo’s stories are plainspoken and uncomplicated and really quite conventional; if there are few surprises in her hard-won revelations that life is hard and ultimately tragic, to say nothing of litigious and bureaucratic, there is plenty of sympathy for humans in all their inglorious, messy condition.
A welcome introduction to a writer of substance hitherto unknown to readers outside Korea.