‘The Hole’ by Hye-Young Pyun (Review)

After a brief trip home, I’ve had to pack my bags once more, with today’s Women in Translation Month post taking me to Korea.  It’s a country known for getting a lot of female writers’ work into English, and today’s choice is just the latest to appear overseas.  One for those interested in psychological, slow-burning thrillers, the novel poses an intriguing question: given the time to reflect, what would you really think about your life?  And, more importantly, how would others view your actions…

Hye-Young Pyun / Pyun Hye-young’s The Hole (translated by Sora Kim-Russell, review copy courtesy of Arcade Publishing) takes us to a hospital in Seoul, where forty-seven-year-old academic Oghi has just woken up from a coma caused by a car crash.  After the initial disorientation, he begins to understand the seriousness of his condition:

Oghi lay there and watched as the hospital ceiling and fluorescent lights rushed past.  He had a feeling he would be in that bed for a while.  Not just a few hours but for days to come.  All this talk about the importance of willpower must have meant that, unless he wanted it badly enough, he would have a tough time getting better.  It meant there was absolutely no chance his body would mend on its own, that even repeated treatment would not guarantee recovery.
p.5 (Arcade Publishing, 2017)

He soon learns that his wife died in the crash, which makes the task of rehabilitation even more difficult.  Shattered in both body and spirit, he’s eventually discharged, allowed to go home under the supervision of a live-in caregiver.

Despite the lack of close friends and relatives, Oghi does have one support person, as his mother-in-law takes responsibility for his care, even moving in when the initial arrangements fail to work out.  However, the patient soon realises that the elderly woman might have an ulterior motive for becoming so involved with him.  As Oghi lies in bed day after day thinking back on his life, he realises that he wasn’t always as perfect a husband as he might have thought at the time, and his mother-in-law may have picked up on this.  Soon, his suspicions begin to be confirmed: his contact with the outside world is curtailed, and outside, in the front garden, the old woman begins to dig and dig and dig…

This is Pyun’s second book in English after Evening Proposal, a collection of stories with a definite dark edge to them.  That mood is also apparent here, and The Hole develops from its set-up into a blend of suspense or thriller and slow-moving literary novel.  The writer puts her main characters in their positions at the start of the novel and then uses two strands to develop the story.  One is the description of Oghi’s life post-accident, outlining his desperate struggle to return to full health, even if he suspects he can’t.  Of course, confined to his bed, he has ample time for reflection, and the second side of the story fills in the background not just of the period leading up to the car crash, but also his whole life, focusing on his time with his wife.

Throughout both of these strands, the figure of the mother-in-law looms large.  She’s an unassuming woman who Oghi initially thought to be rather timid, but looking back on his married life, he realises that there’s always been something about her that didn’t quite add up.  Having lived her early life in Japan, she has the air of an outsider, and despite her calmness, she was always able to control her cantankerous husband.  Now that Oghi is living with her, he can see her strength, determination and, perhaps, a dangerous single-mindedness that will affect his convalescence.

One of the (Korean) blurbs on the back cover describes The Hole as “reminiscent of Stephen King’s Misery”, and that’s certainly one aspect of the novel.  Oghi is not only bed-ridden, but with a shattered jaw, he’s unable to communicate either, and much of the novel focuses on the helplessness of the invalid.  On leaving hospital, the formerly proud academic suffers humiliation at the hands of the caregiver and her son, so he hopes that his mother-in-law will do a better job:

“I want you to get better.  What else could I possibly want?  That’s what my daughter would have wanted.  So that’s what I’ll do.  What my daughter couldn’t.  What she meant to do.  What she wanted to do.  I have to do it for her.  And I will.  You know she was all I had.” (p.160)

Her words may appear kind enough, but they contain a slightly sinister double meaning.  Either through lack of energy, or lack of desire, she neglects her patient, and Oghi’s humiliation intensifies.  He’s left alone for days, and when he does receive visitors, his new carer insists on embarrassing him in front of them.  Even his few remaining comforts are slowly stripped away, the view from his window gradually disappearing behind highly symbolic strangling vines and iron bars.

Yet there’s a slightly more subtle side to the novel, and the more we learn of Oghi, the more we see that he perhaps deserves a little pain.  Even with the story being told through his eyes, there are many places where he comes off as a rather less than sympathetic figure.  In addition, while his mother-in-law can seem vicious at times, that’s not the whole story.  There are other occasions when we see her simply as an exhausted old lady overwhelmed by the task of caring for the last person close to her; her harsh treatment of Oghi might simply be a result of exhaustion.  But then again…

The title comes from the large hole the old woman digs in the garden, a void that can be seen as a symbol of the unknown, but it also refers to a metaphorical hole, too.  As the days drag by, Oghi comes to understand the emptiness of his life before the accident:

How does a life get so turned around in an instant?  How does it fall apart, vanish, dwindle to nothing?  Had Oghi secretly been helping this life in its plot to do exactly that? (p.23)

It’s a good question, but there’s a far more pressing one at hand.  Having already fallen into this metaphorical void, is he fated to end up in the real one too?  Don’t expect me to answer that – you’ll have to read the book and find out 🙂

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