‘Everything About Chess’ by Kim Keum-hee & ‘Halloween’ by Chung Han-ah (Review)

Having recently reviewed Choi Eunyoung’s The Summer, I decided it would be nice to take a look at the other books I received in the same batch as part of what has become a month of East Asian reviews.  ASIA Publishers’ bilingual K-Fiction series now runs to eighteen titles, and in line with much of the fiction that’s made its way into English from Korean over the past few years, this latest trio has pushed the series’ ratio of women to men over the fifty percent mark.  Today’s post, then, looks at another couple of stories by young female writers – I wonder if either of them will be the next big thing discovered by western publishers…

*****
Kim Keum-hee’s Everything About Chess (translated by Jeon Miseli) is the story of three university students at the end of the nineties and the relationships they share.  Yongji, the narrator, first comes across Noah at a magazine club and is instantly drawn to him because of his tendency to stand out from the crowd.  However, she’s far too shy to do anything about it, and it’s the third member of the group, the spiky Kuk-hwa that Noah gravitates towards.

After a period of friendship and squabbles, the group drift apart, mainly due to the increasing antagonism between Noah and Kuk-hwa, but years later they catch up once more.  Tired and jaded by life in the real world, the anger they displayed in their youth is no longer there to come between them.  However, as much as they would like to relive those times, the chances of a happily-ever-after are as just as remote now as when they were all students.

The title comes from the games of chess Noah and Kuk-hwa used to play, an activity symbolising the different ways the two see the world.  Noah has a strictly logical view of life and an obsession with rules, while Kuk-hwa is more emotional and ready to improvise, and it’s this difference in mindsets that causes conflict.  You can sympathise at times with Kuk-hwa’s anger at Noah’s thoughtlessness, but from the first few pages, it’s clear that there’s more to this than pure selfishness:

He was also suffering from manic-depressive psychosis.  He was on medication, yet would still become extremely listless some days and highly excitable on others.  He would be highly self-critical when he made a mistake, often beating or scratching himself.
p.11 (ASIA Publishers, 2017)

Noah seems to be the way he is, though, partly because others tiptoe around him, and Kuk-hwa’s refusal to let him have his own way, typified by her flat rejection of the conventional rules of chess, both confounds and intrigues him.

On a first reading, I wasn’t overly impressed with this one, but it certainly grew on me second time around.  The protagonists are young Koreans arriving in the adult world at a time when the Korean economy is collapsing, and the writer is describing the struggles they face in a challenging society.  Certainly, when they meet up again, they are weary shadows of the people they once were.  However,the second reading also brought the narrator into focus more; as we watch her fade into the background, we start to wonder why she’s so passive, and what she gets out of playing the role of third wheel.

*****
Everything About Chess is a rather opaque tale at times, but the second story, Chung Han-ah’s Halloween (translated by Stella Kim) is far more straightforward.  It begins with a will, that of the main character Sehee’s grandmother, in which she leaves her shop to her granddaughter.  The young woman, who is slowly getting over a breakup, spends her time before the funeral cleaning the place up with the intention of selling it off as soon as possible.

The rest of the will is slightly less clear, however.  The old lady, supposedly of sound mind, left the rest of her property to be divided between her four children, which sounds simple enough until you realise that Sehee’s father only had two sisters.  Sure enough, there’s a secret in grannie’s past, about to get off a plane from the US and walk into their lives, and it’s Sehee who will have to deal with the new arrival…

In her writer’s note, Chung reveals that the old woman in the story is based on her own grandmother, but Halloween is very much a work of fiction (the title comes from the time of year in the story).  Sehee is at the centre of the action, and we switch repeatedly between her work cleaning out the store and flashbacks to her failed relationship with a married man (for whom she virtually abandoned her grandmother).  Having been summoned back to the shop from behind the grave, Sehee believes that her role is clear:

I knew what it meant that Grandma left me her store: She wanted me to take care of her remains.  The store was her body, I should dispose of what needed to be disposed of, burn what needed to be burned, and scatter the rest into the air.
p.27 (ASIA Publishers, 2017)

That’s one way of interpreting the old woman’s wishes, but a nagging doubt remains: what if she actually had something else in mind for her rootless granddaughter?

With a broken relationship, a bickering family coming together for a funeral (and the legacies…) and a stranger as the fly in the ointment, Halloween has all the ingredients for an interesting story, and in truth it seems as if it should have been much longer.  We do get from A to B within the forty or so pages, but you get the sense that there was room here to expand on the action and fill in a few of the gaps.  The conflict is resolved a little too easily, and there was definitely scope to explore the relationship between the three main women in the story (Sehee, the prodigal daughter Danielle and Miae, the helper at the clothes shop) in far more detail.  The story touches on the similarities between their unconventional childhoods, but it’s all over far too quickly – nice story, but I think it might have made a far better novel.

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