‘Mina’ by Kim Sagwa (Review)

While translated fiction in general can suffer from a gender imbalance, that doesn’t appear to be as much of an issue in Korean literature, particularly when it comes to the younger generations.  With Han Kang and Bae Suah fairly well established in English now, other young female authors are starting to follow their path.  Hwang Jungeun and Han Yujoo have both had books translated, and today sees the release of a novel by another excellent writer.  Previously, the only piece of Kim Sagwa’s work I’d read was a bizarre, energy-laden story in the collection The Future of Silence.  As her first full-length work to make it into English shows, she’s able to keep that up across a whole novel, with impressive (and terrifying) results…

The title character of Mina (translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, electronic review copy courtesy of Two Lines Press) is a high-school girl whose family lives in an opulent apartment after having won the lottery.  Intelligent and attractive, she makes an impression on all around her with a slightly different attitude to life, including her interest in foreign literature and philosophy.  However, when one of her friends commits suicide, unable to bear the insane pressures of teen life in Korean society, Mina is stunned and starts to withdraw.

In truth, though, Kim’s novel is less about Mina herself than her best friend Crystal.  Where Mina is easy-going, Crystal is focused and never less than perfect, determined to make a success of her life, and someone who looks down upon those who take the easy way out.  Yet when Mina disappears for a while, Crystal is caught off-balance, and her single-mindedness becomes obsession, with two new goals to aim for.  The first is to make Mina’s brother, Minho, her new boyfriend.  The other is to make Mina see things her way, whether she likes it or not.

If you’ve read Kim’s story, ‘It’s One of Those the More-I’m-in-Motion-the-Weirder-it-Gets Days and It’s Really Blowing My Mind’, the direction Mina takes will come as no surprise.  Not a book for the faint of heart, it’s full-on, exhausting and often quite disturbing.  In its focus on schoolgirls and the pressures of Korean society, it also has more than a few parallels with Han Yujoo’s The Impossible Fairytale, another fairly intense work, with several striking coincidences in the action (while Mina is only appearing in English now, it actually preceded Han’s novel in the original language by a good five years).

The title is a little deceptive as Mina is merely the foil to Crystal, the character really being examined here.  We are shown a beautiful high-school girl on an unstoppable path to success.  She’s always top of the class, and her flawless English assignments are the pride of her cram school teachers.  Outside the classroom, she toys with the many boys desiring her while playing her parents for new phones and brand-name products.

However, this is only the surface.  The girl’s character is just like her English assignments, beautifully constructed but lacking in any real depth or meaning.  Crystal is an apt name for someone who proves to be pleasing to the eye but devoid of higher qualities, particularly empathy:

Crystal is caught in a dilemma: What look should she adopt; what expression should she wear?  She looks around.  Everyone’s manner appears perfectly appropriate.  They may not have known her well, this student from the school close by who resembled them in many ways, but now that they’ve heard the news of her suicide they seem to know how to respond.  Am I the only one, the one person who’s without a clue? (p.19)

This isn’t the only time she struggles with the concept of appropriate responses.  Not only does she fail to sympathise with others when required, but she doesn’t really understand why she should anyway.

Crystal’s flaws run deeper than a simple lack of understanding, though.  She’s a teen who actively hates people who don’t get what matters in life, and the book is peppered with rants about dumb people and how they should be disposed of.  There’s a clear Darwinian slant to her views, with a focus on the survival of the fittest (and nastiest).  Cleverly, Crystal is not the only character tainted in this way.  While Minho may not be quite as driven as Crystal, when we get to see him more in the second half of the book, his smile masks a heart just as empty.

Of course, Crystal is just a representative of the denizens of what is often called ‘Hell Choseon’, the modern Korean society that places its people under immense pressure.  The incredible lives of Korean teens is something I’ve seen in K-Dramas, but to actually experience it must be something else entirely:

Home. Cram school.  How can anyone think this is normal?  It’s crazy.  Everyone’s crazy.  I can’t stand it.  Not anymore!  I can’t stand this life.  This is hell.  It’s hell.  Hell Chosŏn!  Our society is hell!  That’s why Chiye killed herself. (p.118)

Chiye’s suicide was her only way out of this hell.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t just happen in fiction, with many Korean teens cracking under the pressure.  In addition, there’s little chance of the parents helping out as they’re simply too busy to notice what their kids are up to.  Like a kids’ book or cartoon where the adults’ faces are never shown, Kim’s novel features a total absence of parents, with the students left to raise themselves (with the help of a few underpaid cram school teachers…).

However, it’s Kim’s depiction of Crystal that makes Mina so special.  We see how the icy perfect teen queen slowly disintegrates into madness, and the language reflects this, with the sentences becoming faster and jerkier as she loses it.  The Fultons are stalwarts of Korean-English literary translation, and they’ve done another excellent job here both on the mesmerising psychotic episodes and the more detached parts where the writer almost seems to be stepping back, examining Crystal and Mina like rats in an experiment.  Like those poor creatures, there’s a sense that the girls are ultimately expendable.

Mina is a wonderful, if disturbing, work (the cover image is not as random as you might think…), and it all culminates in a confrontation where Crystal (and the Korean reader) learns some hard truths:

Unfortunately, there are more and more kids who are like you, and kids like you make the world a colder, harder place.  And we forget what the world was like before.  And it scares me. (p.221)

Kim’s novel asks Korean society to stop for a moment and take a good hard look in the mirror.  I suspect that few people will be happy with what they see there…

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