‘Love in the Big City’ by Sang Young Park (Review – IBP 2022, Number Eight)

Well, our last International Booker Prize adventure proved to be an exhausting one, with trips to four different countries, so it’s probably for the best that today’s journey involves a lengthier stay.  That doesn’t mean, though, that this will be a relaxing outing – far from it.  I hope you’ve packed your dancing shoes because we’ll be going out on the town and returning with the rubbish trucks the next morning.  Why?  In search of love, of course 😉

Love in the Big City by Sang Young Park
– Tilted Axis Press, translated by Anton Hur
What’s it all about?
Love in the Big City is a novel, of sorts, consisting of four stories told by a thirty-something gay Korean man, Young.  The stories tell of the adventures of his adult life so far, with each starting at a certain event before backtracking to a previous starting point, allowing the writer to tell us how he got there.  While the stories are connected by the narrator and his experiences, they’re also stand-alone pieces in a way, focusing on a different aspect of Young’s love life.

‘Jaehee’, for example, starts with the wedding of the titular heroine, Young’s best friend throughout his uni days, and as we look up to the immaculate bride with her groom, both receiving the congratulations and praise of friends and family, we learn of her slightly less immaculate past, with Young reminiscing about some rather wild times.

By contrast, ‘A Bite of Rockfish, Taste the Universe’ begins with our friend receiving an unexpected, and unusual, package in the post.  That’s the catalyst for another trip down memory lane, one in which Young reflects on a relationship with an older man, one always destined to end badly.

‘Love in the Big City’ then focuses on a more serious, and successful, relationship, with our cynical narrator finally meeting a nice man, before ‘Late Rainy Season Vacation’ rounds the book off with a slightly melancholy tale of our hero coming to a bit of a turning point.  The fun-loving twenties have turned into angst-ridden thirties, and we wonder what Young will get up to next…

Park’s novel is one I was looking forward to trying, and it certainly doesn’t disappoint.  At times, it’s a fun romp through the long Seoul nights in the company of a garrulous, self-deprecating guide who’s always ready to see the lighter (and cruder) side of events:

Marveling, Jaehee confessed to me that I was right, the only thing he had going for him was the size of his genitals, to which I spake unto her that he was surely of lowly consequence and that she must leave him and return to the light, whereupon she vowed to offer up any man she met thenceforth to me for inspection, grasping my hand and gazing at me like a true believer.  Nodding sagely, I embraced Jaehee’s poor soul.
‘Jaehee’, p.22 (Tilted Axis Press, 2021)

The light-hearted, easy-going style makes the book a pleasure to read, with the narrator/writer always keen to embrace the absurd nature of some of his actions.  In addition, Hur once again shows his flexibility, turning in an excellent performance on a book rather different in tone to many of his previous efforts.

If that was all Park’s novel had going for it, though, it would probably get old very quickly, so it’s fortunate that as the story progresses, there are more glimpses of a slightly darker side to Young’s life.  One aspect the writer focuses on is the man’s relationship with his mother.  We learn how she raised him alone, and then struggled to accept him when she discovered his sexuality, even taking him to therapy to see if he could be cured.  Theirs is a powerful relationship, close but tense, and Young returns to it throughout the book.

Another darker feature of the work is the fraught nature of the gay dating experience.  The first stories are rather light-hearted in their description of Young’s nocturnal fumblings:

The moon and streetlamps and neon signs of the whole world seemed to be shining their lights just for me, and I could still hear the strains of a Kylie Minogue remix in my ear.  It wasn’t important who the guy was.  The only thing that mattered was that I existed with someone, there in those dark streets of the city, and that was why I was wrestling tongues with a stranger.
‘Jaehee’, pp.8/9

However, the carefree nature of these early encounters gives way to a darker, more sombre tone as longer-term partners are able to penetrate his shield of humour, leaving wounds that will take years to heal.  Of course, there’s an even deadlier side to all the sleeping around, and having finished the book, I now have a very different take on the quotation provided above…

Overall, the stories combine to show us the life of a man trying to find love in not just a big city, but an environment that’s not exactly conducive to an open gay lifestyle.  Having read a lot of rather grim Korean books, I was probably expecting a book where the protagonist faced far more problems and discrimination, but that wasn’t really the case.  Glimpses of abuse do occasional make it to the surface, but for the most part, they’re firmly hidden beneath a sense of humour and a determination to enjoy life to the max.  And you can’t really argue with that 😉

Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
No, I’m afraid not.  Quite apart from the fact that I’m not the demographic Park’s book is appealing to, I don’t think this is one of the better offerings on the longlist.  Even with the gay twist, it’s a fairly standard story of a twenty-something looking to find his way in life, and the separate sections don’t come together as much as I’d like them to (although that might just be me).  It was certainly fun to read, and very different to most Korean fiction out there, but it doesn’t measure up to a number of the other longlisted titles I’ve read, so it won’t be in my top six.

Will it make the shortlist?
Probably not.  I can see why it was longlisted, and it does bring something different to the mix, but I suspect that if there’s a Korean (or Tilted Axis Press!) book in the final six, it won’t be this one.

That’s quite enough clubbing for one day, so it’s time to catch a flight out of Seoul and head off to Israel, where we’ll be crashing with yet another charismatic figure.  However, our next host has a fair few secrets, and as a result, we’ll be dragged off on yet another excursion to see just what dark stories lie hidden in her past…

…this year’s journey certainly has us racking up the air miles 😉

2 thoughts on “‘Love in the Big City’ by Sang Young Park (Review – IBP 2022, Number Eight)

  1. The title does it justice, as the content would probably be more appropriate for a (few) Sex and the City episode(s) than for an actual novel. Although I enjoyed reading the accounts of queer life in Seoul (which resonate with accounts from elsewhere in a ‘big city’), i didn’t find much literary value (content/musings/character depth) in this book: it remained somewhat shallow throughout. I don’t expect it to be shortlisted either…


    1. Angela – I wouldn’t go that far as I did find moments that showed there’s a deeper, darker side to it all than much of it would suggest, but no, I don’t think this will be in the top six…


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