‘The Summer’ by Choi Eunyoung (Review)

Regular readers may have seen my previous posts on the ASIA Publishers K-Fiction series, a collection of single stories published in bilingual versions, and I recently received the latest additions to the series, bringing the collection up to eighteen titles.  Today’s post sees me looking at one of these, perhaps the longest published so far, a story (novella, almost) that takes us back to a pivotal period in the protagonists’ lives.  Tales of summer love are nothing new, but in a Korean context,two women falling in love is certainly something very different…

Choi Eunyoung’s The Summer (translated by Jamie Chang) begins with a bang.  High-school student Yi-gyeong is walking past her school’s football pitches when she’s knocked to the ground by a stray ball.  The guilty party, a girl called Suyi, picks her up and then takes her to both the nurse’s office and a glasses shop where the frame of Yi-gyeong’s glasses can be fixed:

When the glasses were fixed and Yi-gyeong saw Suyi’s face for the first time, she was reminded of the first time she got glasses.
The murky brown branches had turned out to have thin, gray stripes and white dots, and the green blurs of leaves unfolding on the branches turned out to be translucent chartreuse, with delicate veins.  She could see everything clearly, but the floor had spun beneath her.  She felt the same way when she saw Suyi’s face.
pp.9/11 (ASIA Publishers, 2017)

The two girls quickly fall in love, going on trips outside their home town to find a quiet spot to spend time together and secretly meeting in empty rooms at their school.  However, in an intolerant society, they’re forced to keep a low profile, waiting impatiently for school to be over so that can flee for the capital.

After graduation, the couple finally make it to Seoul, but the move fails to bring them the freedom they crave.  Taking separate paths, they begin to grow apart, the differences in their personalities combining with the physical distance between Yi-gyeong’s dormitory and Suyi’s squalid room to put a strain on their relationship.  When Yi-gyeong begins to socialise in the gay community, new possibilities open up to her, and she begins to see her partner in a new light.  Is Suyi really the one she’s destined to stay with, or was that summer the peak of their time together?

The Summer is a longish story, divided into five chapters and coming in at around seventy (quite sparse…) pages.  It’s fairly tame by western standards in its description of the couple’s love, but it’s an excellent examination of a relationship between two women and the problems they face.  In truth, the course of their romance is universal and could apply to any young love, with Choi describing the initial, incomparable, flame of desire and how it gradually dies out.  Once the initial passion has cooled, the lovers must deal with the consequences and the inevitable hurt they bring.

The story is told in the third person and follows Yi-gyeong over the course of her relationship.  It’s gradually revealed that this view is retrospective as she’s looking back at the period about fifteen years later, working her way through both regrets and fond memories.  As she examines what she felt over the three years she spent with Suyi, she realises her stubborn denial at the time of the slow disintegration of her first love.  It’s clear now that even though she knew it was time to move on, she simply didn’t know how, having never been in that situation before.

The catalyst she needs appears in the form of Eunji, a beautiful young woman she’s helplessly drawn to.  Yi-gyeong can’t help comparing her with the taciturn, unsociable Suyi, for the first time feeling embarrassed by her partner:

Yi-gyeong felt ashamed of Suyi that day.  Her cheap clothes, dirty running shoes – the bumpkin who can’t get along with strangers, ashamed of her own educational background – all of it embarrassed Yi-gyeong.  She was ashamed that she wasn’t able to show off a wonderful girlfriend.  Because she didn’t want to admit she was ashamed of her, though, she blamed Suyi.  She didn’t want to admit that she had judged Suyi from another person’s point of view. (p.77)

Even if nothing has happened yet, the clock is already ticking, with this first sight of Eunji showing Yi-gyeong the possibility of a different life.  She may be in denial, but it’s only a matter of time before she must face up to the truth.

Of course, Choi isn’t only concerned with the lovers’ personal issues, using her story to explore the wider context of how differences are handled (or not…) in Korean society.  Yi-gyeong has experience of this even before she discovers her sexual orientation, when her school forces her to dye her naturally brown hair black to ensure she doesn’t stand out.  Suyi is groped during football matches by the boys she plays against and is insulted when she reports it, while Eunji’s experiences after being found out are even more disturbing.  The play the characters watch at a gay bar in Seoul, featuring a lesbian wedding fifty years in the future, seems less something to look forward to than a fairy tale that will remain in the realm of fiction – in Korea, at least.

The fact that the lovers are two women gives the story another dimension, and for anyone who feels their issues are exaggerated, Choi’s comments will set you straight.  In her writer’s note, she describes her sadness at how same-sex relationships are considered in her country:

I’ve long heard people say,”Same-sex relationships and marriage are not appropriate for Korean sentiments.”  I don’t know what “Korean sentiments” means, though, and it frightens me that “sentiments”could be used for violating human rights.  If the so-called prevailing “sentiments” involve hatred against minorities, it’s time to dissect and examine those sentiments. (p.153)

Pause for thought, but of course it’s not just Korea that can be hostile towards those in what society might consider ‘unconventional’ relationships.  I happen to live in a country about to take the first steps towards marriage equality via a rather controversial (i.e. unnecessary) postal plebiscite, an undertaking that threatens to whip up some rather unpleasant sentiments.  It’s a reminder that Yi-gyeong’s story is a familiar one, even in the west.

This Summer isn’t perfect by any means, with a few annoying grammar errors and the occasional clumsy phrase marring an otherwise pleasant translation, but on the whole it’s an interesting story, and in places it’s achingly poignant.  Choi’s at her best when describing the shyness of her couple’s first meetings and the way they feel in each other’s company:

When she was with Suyi, it was as if she had been reborn in a new body.  The scenery she took in, the breathing through her nose, the temperature of the air on her skin all felt different.  A layer had been peeled off all her sensory organs.  The life she had lived before Suyi felt deprived. (p.25)

Many readers will be reminded of their own young loves, the incredible highs of an unprecedented emotion.  The sad thing is that it rarely lasts, and Choi’s story can be seen as an attempt to show the inevitable disintegration of a relationship while keeping the memory of its passion alive.

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