2014

4 Must-read Korean Novels [available in English]

I went to an “American” school since grade 1, so for the majority of my life, I read English books written mostly by North American writers. Age 14 was when I first got my hands on a Japanese novel translated in English – “Kafka On the Shore” by Haruki Murakami. The difference in style, emotion, tone, and the experience the same English language gave me completely threw me off guard. Since then, I enjoyed reading translated versions of various Asian literature. Most people are advocates of the originals, but I must say there is a unique flavor to translated versions.

For the post today, I want to share with you few of my favorite Korean novels written by Korean authors that are available in English translation.

The following list of books are some of the most influential books in modern Korean literature.

1) Please Look After Mom by Kyung Sook Shin
엄마를 부탁해 – 신경숙

“You were caught off guard. You had never thought of Mother as separate from the kitchen. Mother was the kitchen and the kitchen was Mother. You never wondered, did Mother like being in the kitchen?”

299 pages, published 20081.3M Sold in Korea

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This novel is one of the easier, more approachable books for first-time K-literature readers. 1.3 Million copies sold in Korea, it ‘s a tear-jerking story about a lost mother and her family’s struggle to embody the slow societal disconnect from “traditions” due to rapid urbanization. The plot is rather predictable, but the highlight of the book is that it lets you experience  how some of the sentiments considered by Koreans to be “Korean”- pertinence, remorse, familial bond – is experienced, expressed, and actualized by the characters as the plot unwinds. According to the critics, the dim but realistic depiction of the modern Korean middle-class and the accurate portrayal of familial “jung” or bond is what made this novel an instant hit in Korea. I appreciate how the novel illuminates the omnipresence of the gender paradigm (patriarchal one) in Korean society (not to say it’s limited to Korea) through the illustration of strict gender roles in the family.

Synopsis from Amazon:

PLEASE LOOK AFTER MOTHER is the story of So-nyo, a wife and mother, who has lived a life of sacrifice and compromise. In the past she suffered a stroke, leaving her vulnerable and often confused. Now, traveling from the Korean countryside to the Seoul of her grown-up children, So-nyo is separated from her husband when the doors close on a packed train. As her children and husband search the streets, they recall So-nyo’s life and all they have left unsaid. Through their piercing voices, we begin to discover the desires, heartaches, and secrets she harboured within. And as the mystery of her disappearance unravels, we uncover a larger mystery, that of all mothers and children: how affection, exasperation, hope and guilt add up to love. Compassionate, redemptive and beautifully written, PLEASE LOOK AFTER MOTHER will reconnect you to the story of your own family, and to the forgotten sacrifices that lie at its heart.

This book is available in both hardcover and e-version on kindle!

2) Our Twisted Hero by Yi Munyol
우리들의 일그러진 영웅 – 이문열

122 pages, published 1987 

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Narrated by a 12-year-old boy, this novel is an allegory of Korea’s political corruption, power dynamics, and greed shown through elementary school’s classroom politics. It was difficult for me not to read it as a critique of Korea’s dictatorship and the developmental-projects the Chun Doo-hwan regime led and the consequent transition into “democracy”. If you liked animal farm, you’d probably like this novel. It’s a short, fun political parable but doesn’t go deeply into the character development.

Synopsis from Amazon:

When the twelve-year-old narrator of Our Twisted Hero moves to a small town and enrolls in the local school, he’s confident that his big city sophistication will establish him as a natural leader. He is shocked to find his new classmates and teacher under the spell of the class monitor. As the narrator sets out to overthrow the bully, he is threatened, teased–and finally broken.

Available in Canada!

3) I Have the Right to Destroy Myself by Kim Young-ha
나는 나를 파괴할 권리가 있다 – 김영하

“Sometimes fiction is more easily understood than true events. Reality is often pathetic.” 

134 pages, published 2010 

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This book was particularly difficult for me to read but that much more intriguing; the entire book is pretty much wrapped in misogyny. But still, full of sex, art, and death, this novel is a perfect companion for Toronto’s sunny yet piercing cold winter day. It’ll take you on an intense introspective journey.

Synopsis from Amazon:

In the fast-paced, high-urban landscape of Seoul, C and K are brothers who have fallen in love with the same woman—Se-yeon—who tears at both of them as they all try desperately to find real connection in an atomized world. A spectral, nameless narrator haunts the edges of their lives as he tells of his work helping the lost and hurting find escape through suicide. Dreamlike and beautiful, the South Korea brought forth in this novel is cinematic in its urgency and its reflection of contemporary life everywhere—far beyond the boundaries of the Korean peninsula.  Recalling the emotional tension of Milan Kundera and the existential anguish of Bret Easton Ellis, I Have the Right to Destroy Myself achieves its author’s greatest wish—to show Korean literature as part of an international tradition. Young-ha Kim is a young master, the leading literary voice of his generation.

You can purchase the book here. 

4) The Guest: A Novel by Sok-Yong Hwang
손님 – 황석영

262 pages, published 2001 

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Are you interested in politics, religion, the North/South divide, and war? Do you like grotesque illustrations of deaths and mass killing? Then this book is for you. The story takes place in Korea during Korean War(popularly known as the “The Forgotten War” in N. America) and intertwines the tension of religion, race, and politics in a sophisticated manner. Multiple narrator (more than 10 I believe) adds layers and thickness to the plot by providing the readers with multiple perspectives. Although the historical accuracy is debatable, it provides new perspective on the North and South divide by illustrating the conflict that took place at a village level. The novel explores the  important ideological underpinnings of Korea’s modern history.

Synopsis from Amazon:

Based on actual events, The Guest is a profound portrait of a divided people haunted by a painful past, and a generation’s search for reconciliation.During the Korean War, Hwanghae Province in North Korea was the setting of a gruesome fifty-two day massacre. In an act of collective amnesia the atrocities were attributed to American military, but in truth they resulted from malicious battling between Christian and Communist Koreans. Forty years later, Ryu Yosop, a minister living in America returns to his home village, where his older brother once played a notorious role in the bloodshed. Besieged by vivid memories and visited by the troubled spirits of the deceased, Yosop must face the survivors of the tragedy and lay his brother’s soul to rest. Faulkner-like in its intense interweaving narratives, The Guest is a daring and ambitious novel from a major figure in world literature.

Purchase the book here!

If you have any additional suggestions to great K-lit reads, comment below or follow me on twitter @tinasyhsu 

10 replies »

  1. I read Our Twisted Hero in grade school, but didn’t know it was a political allegory back then. I’m going to read it again. Thanks for the list!

  2. I just wanted to add that all four novels are also available at Chapters Indigo. ^^
    I don’t do online shopping (I don’t even own a credit card lol), so I looked it up on their site and it says they’re all in stock!
    (Lucky me!!)

  3. Just finished reading Re Jane. WOW! Add this to the list and I will certainly seek out “The Guest”, “I ha ve a right to destroy myself”, “Our Twisted Hero” and “Please look after mother”. I want to teach ESL in South Korea and believe that these books will give me invaluable insight and nunchi.

  4. Hi, thanks for the recommendations! Would either of the first two choices (Please Look After Mom, or Twisted Hero) be suitable for children 11-12yo? Many thanks.

    • Hi there! Both books would be great books for young teens. But, Twisted Hero was written for adults and may be difficult for teenagers to understand. Mom is an easier read!

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