‘I Want to Die But I Want to Eat Tteokbokki’ by Baek Sehee (Review)

Today’s review features yet another Korean book, one that was a major success in its native country, with the English-language translation courtesy of a certain Anton Hur.  Given those facts, you’d expect it to be a guaranteed enjoyable read, right?  Unfortunately, that’s not quite the case (for me, at least) – in fact, it’s probably a timely lesson in checking books out more closely before reaching out for a review copy.

Anyway, that’s all a little confused, so let’s get into the review so I can explain just what it’s all about – and why I wasn’t overly impressed…

Baek Sehee’s I Want to Die but I Want to Eat Tteokbokki (review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury Australia) is a book written by a young woman struggling through life, caught in a cycle of ups, downs and mood swings.  At some point, she finally decides enough’s enough and plucks up the courage to take herself off to therapy.  All fairly normal so far – except that, unusually, she’s taking us along for the ride.

The book consists of a series of chapters, lengthy dialogues between the writer and her therapist (who was kind enough to allow Baek to record the sessions…).  These sections consist of a back and forth between the two in which they look back at the week just gone, discussing the highs and lows of the past seven days.  As Baek says:

This book is a record of the therapy I received for dysthymia, or persistent depressive disorder (a state of constant, light depression).  It’s also full of personal and sometimes pathetic details, but I’ve tried to make it more than just a venting of my dark emotions.  I explore specific situations in my life, searching for the fundamental causes of my feelings so I can move in a healthier direction.
p.ix (Bloomsbury Australia, 2022)

The reason for her decision to open up her sessions to the wider world is to show others who may be suffering from similar issues that they’re not alone.

In addition to the main chapters, there are several added extras.  After each ‘session’, Baek provides a short, self-help monologue, often summarising what she’s learned about herself, and these are supplemented by more bonus features at the end of the book.  There’s a short message from the therapist (who sounds slightly bemused by the whole thing) as well as a number of mini-essays, covering topics such as solitude, love, work, empathy and… dogs!

As you may have already gathered, this was most definitely not a book for me.  I’m not really one for self-help books, and this is a rather fluffy example of the genre.  Despite being fairly short, it failed to hold my concentration for long, and I must admit that I found myself skim-/speed-reading at times, which is never a good sign.  I’m not questioning the writer’s feelings or emotions, but I often found it hard to empathise, and her comments during the sessions were often a little cringeworthy.

However, to be fair, I’m not exactly the target audience for the book, and I suspect that many readers will approach it far more positively.  Hur has once again done an excellent job on the translation, bringing across a voice very different from the other translations of his I’ve read this year.  He catches the easy-going tone of the summaries and the chatty style of the sessions superbly – very different from his work on Kyung-Sook Shin’s Violets, for example.

You also have to admire Baek’s very honest approach.  She holds nothing back, to the extent that she often comes across as rather annoying, and she betrays an inability to see what she’s doing at the time she does it.  On several occasions, her psychiatrist points out a major issue:

You’ve backed yourself into a corner and made yourself choose between black or white.  Whether to see a person or not, whether to be best friends with them or never speak to them again.  You either lash out or endure.  The only choices you have are yes and no, and there is no middle ground.  I think with this friend you thought you had a ‘special friendship’, which was why you tried to endure and continue.  And you got exhausted at keeping up this ruse. (p.86)

This issue of extremes, her black-and-white thinking, is a recurring theme, and the psychiatrist does their best to make their patient aware of the issue, so that she can overcome it.

The message the book sends is that it’s alright not to be perfect (or perhaps, for K-Drama fans, It’s OK to Not Be OK…), and Baek is often surprised by what the psychiatrist tells her.  Telling lies?  Perfectly normal.  Having negative thoughts about people? Not a problem.  She’s also told about a need to shift perspectives and focus on the positives in her life:

When you feel envious of something, try to imagine how you would look to your twenty-year-old self.  Wouldn’t she think something like, Wow, look at me!  I graduated college and I’m working at a publishing house! (p.50)

Yes, she would, and she’d be thrilled by the fact that her older self has sold shedloads of books, too (which is probably another thing that makes me slightly suspicious about the book…).

Sadly, I Want to Die But I Want to Eat Tteokbokki is not a book I particularly enjoyed, but if you’re a fan of light, confessional self-help works, you’ll probably enjoy this.  It’s a book featuring a woman looking back at her issues, reflecting on them and reaching out in an attempt to help.  She hopes that by opening up about her emotions, she’ll strike a chord with others and help them out of a dark place.  I may not be one of those people, but perhaps some of you out there will be slightly more receptive to Baek’s message 🙂

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