‘Violets’ by Kyung-Sook Shin (Review)

The big success on the translator front in this year’s International Booker Prize has been Anton Hur, twice longlisted and once shortlisted (and with a good chance of winning the whole thing with Bora Chung’s Cursed Bunny).  A busy man, he’s not one to rest on his laurels, and before this year’s winner has even been announced, he’s back with another Korean novel, one written by a big name in K-Lit.  While Hur himself is no shrinking violet, that’s exactly what we’re getting in today’s choice, an intriguing story of a woman drifting through her days with plenty of time to smell the roses – even if not everything in her life is quite as pleasant as the flowers she sells…

Violets (review copy courtesy of Weidenfeld & Nicolson) is the latest work in English by Kyung-Sook Shin, author of novels such as Please Look After Mother, I’ll Be Right There and The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness.  Amazingly, however, this is the first time that the same translator has actually worked on more than one of them, with Hur also having brought The Court Dancer into English.  This latest work dates from 2001, but it’s a book that was certainly worth the wait, a slow-burning, melancholy tale of a woman disappointed so severely at an early age that even decades on she finds it difficult to open up and live a happy life.

The story begins with a glimpse into the childhood of the protagonist, Oh San.  She lives in a village with her mother, abandoned by the man of the house, and these early scenes describe a rural childhood and a touching friendship with another young girl, Namae.  Sadly, their relationship is damaged beyond repair when San crosses a line, and the protagonist is left alone in a hostile environment, with only her mother and a cantankerous grandmother for company.

The narrative then skips forward to show San as an adult trying to find an office job in Seoul.  After another failed attempt, she spots a sign for a job in a flower shop, and despite never having done that kind of work, she decides to give it a try.  Thus starts another period in San’s life, and a chance of some happiness, but even if her new job does bring her joy, there’s always a nagging doubt as to whether it’ll last all that long.

Violets is a beautiful novel examining the life of a lonely woman who has closed herself off to the outside world.  The feeling of detachment is enhanced by the writing, with the use of the present tense keeping the reader at a distance:

The flower shop in the early summer is verdant and radiant.
The windows, even the outer shutters, are opened to the street.  The sidewalk in front of the shop is wet, as if someone has just sprinkled a hose there.  Pots of ficus trees, rubber figs, and lady palms populate the sidewalk.  When annoyed pedestrians walk by, their frowns melt into contented sighs at the sight of lush green plants, purple balloon flowers, and buckets filled with China pinks and irises.

p.17 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2022)

San tends to go off on long, lonely walks, watching the world as it goes about its business, and the evenings spent in her empty apartment add to the solitary mood.

However, her job introduces her to new people, providing her with the opportunity of a fresh start.  In addition to the men she encounters as part of her work (in particular, a photographer who seems rather taken with her), there’s her new colleague, Su-ae.  While she’s San’s age, she has a very different personality, and this outgoing bundle of energy crashes into San’s life like a bomb.  Somehow, though, the two seem to complement each other, and it’s not long before they’re roommates and best friends.

Amongst San’s woes, there are some beautiful scenes in Violets, moments where she even seems happy.  There’s a day spent working on the farm of the flower shop owner, with the satisfaction of hard work and companionable breaks, as well as meals and drinks with friends, times in which an ordinary, enjoyable life seems within reach.  Yet these bright spots are soon blotted out by darker tones.  There are letters from her mother, reminders of abandonment and unhappiness, and an unhealthy obsession with the photographer’s throw-away compliment, a few seconds of false praise that echo around her mind for months.  Yes, even when San is seemingly on her way up, you sense that a breakdown is just around the corner.

The title is an interesting one.  In one sense it refers to the violets San sells, of course, with a pivotal scene having the photographer sent to take pictures at the shop, unable to understand what people see in such a delicate flower.  However, there are hints of other connotations in the dictionary entry San looks up:

Remembering something, she finds an English to Korean dictionary and comes back.  Turning the onionskin pages, her gaze wanders around the definition of violets.

Violator: Noun, one who breaks rules, invades, insults, rapes
Violence: Noun, a disturbance, disruption, destruction
Violet: Noun, a plant, a swallow flower… purple, the color, also used to describe… an oversensitive person, a shy person (“shrinking violet”)
Violin: Noun, a musical instrument… a player of, a violinist (p.137)

It doesn’t take a genius to see where this is going – and no, she’s not going to start taking music lessons…

There’s an unhurried, sometimes lethargic feel to Violets, and in the fragmented approach Shin takes with her novel, focusing on certain scenes then skipping ahead, you feel that we’re only seeing parts of the story, never the whole picture.  The writer shows us San’s one shot at happiness, yet we’re never really convinced that she’s capable of it, no matter how hard those around her might try to draw her out of her shell.  There’s always a sense that any moments of happiness will be rather fleeting.

A nice addition to the novel is Shin’s afterword, in which she revisits the book twenty years on.  It begins with an anecdote describing how the book came about:

One day, on a walk in an attempt to alleviate the pain, I sat down on a park bench in the middle of the city and saw two young women playing badminton in a nearby empty lot.  Behind them was a construction site with a looming excavator, an enormous heap of earth in its claw.  It looked ready to swallow the two women whole.  This sight unsettled me.  By the time I came home, I had an idea for a novel.  One about a “little girl” who eventually finds work in the middle of the city, at a flower shop. (p.210)

There are several elements in this scene that make it into the finished novel, some more painful than others, and it’s fascinating to hear how she developed the idea of the book and what she wanted to say with the tale of her “little girl”.

If I’m honest, I haven’t always been a big fan of Shin’s writing, but Violets, thanks largely to Hur’s excellent work, is a novel that manages to create a mood and sustain it throughout, pulling the reader into San’s miserable world and keeping them there, if at a slight distance, for the duration.  It fits into that K-Lit genre of stories highlighting the issues faced by women in a male-dominated society, but it’s also an individual study of one shy woman in which her life is laid bare.  More than that, though, it’s a beautiful, tragic story, one that will linger in the memory.

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