My first Korean reading experience involved a book by Shin Kyung-sook, but as regular readers may well remember, it also almost marked the end of my K-lit adventures, with Please Look After Mother annoying me sufficiently to be awarded the dreaded Golden Turkey award for my least favourite book of the year. Luckily, I managed to give Korean literature another chance, and eventually I even tried another of Shin’s books, the far more impressive I’ll Be Right There. Still, it was with more than a little trepidation that I picked up another of the writer’s books – having liked and hated the first two, I really wasn’t sure how I was going to react to the third…
The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness (translated by Ha-Yun Jung, published by Pegasus Books) is the story of a country girl who, at the age of sixteen, heads off to the big city. Staying in a one-room apartment with two of her brothers and her cousin, she starts work at a factory and later attends evening high school in an attempt to go on to university. As the story unwinds, we share four years of the young woman’s life in Seoul, spent shuttling between work, school and what she terms ‘the lonely room’ (the original Korean title of the novel).
However, the novel has a second strand, and these factory sections alternate with later pieces. Set in 1994, they focus on a writer (the factory girl fifteen years or so later) looking back on her younger days, a period she’s blocked out of her memory for years:
In order to avoid Ha Gye-suk’s voice, I pack my bags and leave home. I think of the farthest I can get away from home within this country. I get on the plane. But in the end, here I am, sitting here gazing at the lights from the fishing boats floating on the night sea. And I write.
p.51 (Pegasus Books, 2015)
In the end, even though she has never really wanted to, she feels compelled to start writing about the lonely years she spent after coming to Seoul, an undertaking brought about by the urging of others and the guilt she feels about ignoring her old classmates. However, there’s another reason why she’s finally decided to pick up her pen, a desire to finally confront the realities of the past; in particular, a heart-breaking tragedy that has overshadowed her adult life.
The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness is an interesting work – part autobiography, part meta-fiction, part I-novel -, in which the writer takes us back to the late seventies, providing yet another view of a volatile period of Korean society. The Park Chung-hee era is coming to an end, and young Koreans harbour hopes of a new start and a better society after decades of having their noses rubbed firmly in the dirt. Sadly, those hopes are soon dashed, and as the story progresses, the problems of the outside world begin to loom large in the main character’s daily life.
In truth, though, Shin’s novel is less about the big picture than the lives of the writer, her cousin and her two brothers. She describes their struggles to make their way in the capital and the difficulty of their daily grind, filled with work and with little time for rest or recreation. This is especially true for Oldest Brother, who essentially takes on the role of the absent father. Despite officially fulfilling his military service obligations, he somehow finds the time to hold down a variety of jobs at cram schools in order to keep the small household in rent and food.
The girl makes it through her days thanks to her dream of becoming a writer. She’s encouraged by a teacher at her school (a night school organised especially to educate workers) who presents her with a gift of a book (Cho Se-hui’s The Dwarf), and she spends her spare moments copying it into her notebook. She dreams of one day escaping the factory to pursue her studies and begin writing herself, and the book she receives is the first step towards that goal.
Of course, The Dwarf is an apt book for her to receive. It’s a novel detailing the power imbalance in Korean society, focusing on how workers are oppressed by big business, and that’s exactly what happens here. Having been chosen to attend night school, the main character and her cousin find themselves open to blackmail and having to toe the management line:
When my cousin and I return to the production line, it’s empty. The few people remaining in their seats are those who will be starting school and who are close to Foreman. Despite the fact that the conveyor belt is moving, and that Cousin and I are in our number two and number one positions, there aren’t enough people to keep the assembly line going. There is nothing for those remaining to do but watch the conveyor belt move in silence.
“This is what shame is.” Cousin, who maintained composure even in the icy wind, wells up with tears as she says,”This is what shame is.” (pp.85/6)
The two are forced into leaving the union, but others have an even harder time, bullied and attacked by bosses in an attempt to make them see ‘the error of their ways’. The browbeating even develops into real beatings, especially when the regime changes and the government decides to crack down on society’s ‘unwelcome elements’…
The more we learn of her early life, the more understandable the writer’s taciturn, introverted nature becomes. The story she has begun to serialise is meant to act as catharsis, but she soon discovers that looking back at the period actually brings her more pain:
When I had decided to write about them, it had seemed that I had overcome that time in my life. That was why I had decided to write in as much detail as I could about that time. To restore my memory from that time so that I might open up, so that my footprints, which had been cut off at the closed gate of my life, might be reconnected.
But it turned out my wounds had yet to harden. It seemed I had not been able to overcome anything. It seemed that my desire had triumphed even before my wounds had hardened. (p.153)
However, these wounds are not what you might think. Slowly, another character is introduced, her friend Hui-jae, and it’s clear from the start that there will be a parting, a tragic end to their friendship. Only much later, though, do we learn what happened – and how it has left its mark on the writer’s life.
The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness was Shin’s first novel, and for anyone interested in Korean history and society, it’s a pleasant, engaging read. It’s just as much about the life of a writer as about her early life, and part of the interest in the book lies in how the writer (fictional and real) describes the demands on her time, shutting herself away from aggressive interviewers who believe they have the right to intrude into her private life. The story also cleverly follows her as we see the reactions to the serialisation of her work (which we’ve just read…).
However, the novel can also be rather plodding in parts. It’s fairly slow to get moving, and considering some of the background, it’s surprisingly low-key in its treatment of the violence of the time. In many ways, it treads similar ground to I’ll Be Right There, but without the urgency and tautness of the later novel, it doesn’t always manage to keep the reader’s interest. The translation generally reads well, but over the longish book (ca. 370 pages), it does slip at times. The second half is particularly marked by poor proofreading, with far too many typos and phrases that don’t make sense. And as for the cover… Well, I’ll let you make of that what you will.
While I enjoyed it overall, Shin’s first novel certainly isn’t among the best Korean books of its kind. However, it’s certainly no Please Look After Mother either, and I suspect that other readers will find the book more to their liking than I did. Yes, The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness can drag a little at times, but it’s still an interesting account of a woman facing up to her past and attempting to move on, with enough here to make it worth a look.