Women in Translation Month was due to end in August, but I (like many people) have decided to extend it a little, and that continues this week with more reviews by female writers. Both of this week’s posts will feature Korean fiction, although today’s choice is by a writer better known for her poetry. We’re heading back to the late 1980s, where a young woman is living through some turbulent times in a society where fairness and equality are rather hard to come by. It’s not always easy to get by in a male-dominated society, but you might just make it with a little help from your friends…
I’d been meaning to try Kim Yideum’s Blood Sisters (translated by Jiyoon Lee, published by Deep Vellum Press) for a while now, so I was happy to win a copy after completing a survey for the quarterly magazine Korean Literature Now. The book describes a short but intense period of activity for Yeoul, a university student who has run away from home after clashing with her father and step-mother. She finds temporary refuge with her friend, Jimin, but when Yeoul comes home one evening to find her dead on the floor of their apartment, her life is thrown into turmoil once more.
This is far from the only blow Yeoul will receive. A part-time job she fortuitously walks into turns out to be a big mistake, with a male coworker harbouring a dark secret, and even her hopes of finding her mother (who walked out on her years earlier) turn out to be a dead end. However, in dark times, it’s often our friends that pull us through, and two other young women, her work colleague Eunyeong and school friend Sol, try to help her get on with her life. Whether that will be enough to pull her through is another matter entirely.
Anyone with more than a passing interest in Korean culture will have heard of the expression “Hell Joseon” (which is also used in the blurb for Blood Sisters), and my adventures in the country’s literature have shown that it’s certainly not a new phenomenon. This is particularly true for Korean women, and Yi’s novel manages to show some of the issues they faced, and probably still face, by examining a few months in the life of a young woman who wonders when her luck will change:
Happy, though? Me? This year? All this feels like a fucking joke. Even after I thought everything was over, here we are, another fucking year arrives. There’s not much difference between yesterday and today, so why would one year or another be any different. What’s so new about this year?
It’s all bullshit.
p.43 (Deep Vellum, 2019)
Jimin’s apparent suicide comes as a violent blow and forces Yeoul to reflect on what she’s doing with her life and how she can move on.
Kim portrays Yeoul as a strong-minded young woman, one who won’t go with the flow, even when that would be far easier. This comes across in little details, such as her refusal to address them by the traditional forms (oppa/unni) people want her to use. Feeling pressured by these subtle commands, she stubbornly persists in using people’s names, not wanting to slip into roles others have created for her. This dislike of doing what others want is also shown in the way she keeps moving around instead of simply staying where others can look after her – or control her.
She’s helped here by her friends, the blood sisters of the title, with the cheerful Sol helping to pick her up after Jimin’s death and Eunyoung supporting her after a serious accident leads to an extended hospital stay. Eventually, Yeoul begins to work towards an idea, deciding to finally become a free woman:
“I plan to see my dad tomorrow. I’m going to get him to tell me what happened with my mom, who I am to him. I’ve been avoiding all these questions for a long time, but not anymore. I’m going to see him, get the answers, and then announce my independence from him.” (p.138)
By emancipating herself and cutting all ties with her messy past, she hopes to be able to make a future for herself in which she decides how her life should be lived.
Unsurprisingly, Blood Sisters features several male characters who act as counterweights to the helpful women. The main antagonist is the sleazy Sungyun, a rich kid who preys on young women and is bailed out by family and friends when his (disturbing) actions go too far, and Yeoul’s dad, while mostly in the background, isn’t exactly an ideal father figure. Even the one man who seems to be on her side, the gentle dentist Jihyun, is a potential risk. He provides a warm shelter from the dangers of society, yet his desire to protect Yeoul may turn out to be just another trap she needs to escape from.
Blood Sisters is a fairly easy read, and its short chapters pull the reader through the story, but I wouldn’t say it’s a total success. There’s a lack of focus to the meandering story, and it feels a little fragmented at times, resulting in the reader’s attention wandering. While the story stays with Yeoul, other aspects come and go almost randomly, giving the novel an underdeveloped feel in places. Initially, it seems as if there’s going to be a heavy political mood to the novel, similar to that of Kyung-sook Shin’s I’ll Be Right There, but these background issues never really come to the fore. Also, considering Kim has published a lot of poetry, I was expecting the writing to be better, but it never felt anything beyond average.
Still, despite these minor misgivings, Kim’s novel is an interesting look at a woman struggling to find her own place in a society which would rather she just did what she was told. Blood Sisters can be disturbing, and many readers will feel distressed by what happens to Yeoul over the course of the novel, but it’s important to delve into the unsavoury aspects of society if we are ever to change them. Luckily, Korean women today have more freedom and protection than Kim’s heroine enjoys, but I suspect that in “Hell Joseon”, even today, complete equality is still a long way away…