‘The Bird’ by O Chong-hui (Review)

Not many people will be posting Christmas Day reviews, but mine is a blog that never sleeps (besides, what better present can I give you all than another review?).  With that in mind, Merry Christmas, and happy reading 😉

*****
One of the best discoveries I’ve made during my look at Korean literature is O Chong-hui (Oh Jung-hee), a writer whose stories of ordinary people stand out among the many works I’ve read this year.  She’s known as a master of the short form, so I was interested to see how a longer piece would read – hence the book covered in today’s post.  It’s a work which begins simply enough, but as O is not an author who creates happy shiny people, we know that there’ll be some darker tones just around the corner…

*****
The Bird (translated by Jenny Wang Medina) is set in Korea in the 1990s.  Young U-mi and her little brother U-il have been abandoned by their mother, with the father then forced to venture far afield for work, promising to return one day.  After some years spent with relatives:

“Father had arrived without warning to take us away.  I could hear a voice solemnly and tragically recounting my fate just like in a fairy tale, saying how it came to be so that one day they had to leave the house.  It was as if I had always known that there would come a day when I would have to follow that call to leave unquestioningly.”
p.21 (Telegram Books, 2007)

For the two children, life is about to change.  As well as being reunited with their father, they are about to encounter another surprise in the form of a new mother…

With a clean new room, even if it is devoid of luxuries, and friendly new neighbours, it looks as if life has turned a corner.  However, the reality is that the high hopes are unlikely to last.  Neither the father nor his new wife are the type to stick around when times get tough, and the events to come will have their effect on the two children.  They’re used to being by themselves, but can they really survive all alone?

The Bird is a little different from the majority of the stories I’ve read by the author, mainly in its focus on the children (especially U-mi).  The story starts innocently enough, a story of life in the nineties for poor working-class kids.  The reader soon warms to the clever U-mi, who is doing her best to look after herself and her brother in the absence of parent.

She can expect little help from her father.  He’s a dreamer, ambitious and violent by turns, but he’s also a man caught by the times.  In order to survive, he needs to keep moving to where the work is (which, to be honest, probably suits him…).  After a few drinks, his violent streak appears, and the events the children witness are bound to leave their mark.  A question which repeatedly haunts the reader is that of the mother’s whereabouts, and while U-mi accepts her father’s story, the reader is a little more suspicious…

In any case, U-mi has no time to speculate as she needs to look after her younger brother.  U-il is a dreamer, an innocent, slightly backward boy, who is obsessed by a cartoon character, to the extent of believing he too can fly.  Again, what seems like an innocent, childish belief will later be shown to have a more sinister origin.

For the first half of The Bird, I felt that it was a book more aimed at teenagers, not bad but perhaps lacking in range and emotion, with U-mi’s limited voice restricting the story.  Of course, I should have known better – O is a writer known for her depth, and slowly, gradually, the optimistic tone turns sour.  To start with, it’s little things, such as the children’s destructive tendencies (for example, in cutting faces from photos) or the treatment of poor Mr. Bear, the take-home toy from U-mi’s class at school.

The last third of the book then casts away all pretence at the innocence of youth as disturbing events begin to pile up in a masterful development of a descent into darkness.  There’s violence, sexual awakening and painstaking description of the filth of the underclass (there’s one scene in particular which might be rather distressing for westerners…).  By the end of the book, I’d have to say things have turned almost Ogawaesque – and I mean that in a good way 😉

The writing is excellent, and Wang Medina has done good work in capturing U-mi’s young voice.  The book begins with fairly simple writing that gradually darkens as the story progresses, more from the content than the style.  A nice touch is the childlike use of the word ‘Mummy’, a choice I found a little questionable at the start – by the end, the word seems almost sinister and mocking…

The title isn’t merely drawn from U-il’s dreams of flying as there is an actual bird involved.  Belonging to the children’s neighbour, Mr. Yi, the tiny creature is kept safe in a cage, high above the floor:

“If I put it on the floor, she’d get eaten by a rat faster than I could move a muscle.  And birds are meant to live in the heavens like angels or fairies aren’t they?  What’s so great about a dirty, muddy world of land that’s swarming with bad people who want to catch you for their dinner?” (p.36)

The Bird is an apt symbol of the theme of the novel, a creature representing hope and freedom, but one who is unlikely to ever obtain it.  Just like the bird, U-mi is likely to have a bleak future – the story, however is a very good one.  Chalk up another success for O Chong-hui 🙂

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