Book review: Shoko’s Smile tells harrowing stories of South Korean women

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Shoko’s smile

By Choi Eun-young, translated by Sung Ryu
Fiction/Penguin Group USA/Paperback/261 pages/$22.42/Available here
4 out of 5

Friends and family who are close may end up inexorably falling apart – perhaps over a petty fight, an irreconcilable feud, or even for no apparent reason except for degradation over time. .

This first anthology of short stories explores the complexity of human relationships from the perspective of everyday South Korean women struggling with love, heartache, estrangement and loss.

South Korean author Choi Eun-young’s sober yet evocative prose, translated into English by Singapore-based translator Sung Ryu, offers a poignant look at the emptiness left by loss and the people we still think about long after. their departure.

A dark melancholy is present in all seven stories. There is the well-meaning lie that eats away at a family; and the feeling of wanting to fix a broken relationship, but not knowing how to break the ice.

In Shoko’s Smile, Choi’s groundbreaking, award-winning story, Japanese high school student Shoko visits a rural Korean town on an exchange program and bonds with her host family’s daughter. , Soyu.

They become pen pals, Shoko inspiring Soyu to dream of bigger things. But neither manages to achieve their goals and they walk away, unable to bear the shame of admitting their failures to each other.

Some stories are overtly political and show how certain relationships can break down due to events well beyond our control.

In Sister, My Little Soonae, a family falls apart when a husband is accused of spying for North Korea – an allusion to the 1975 Inhyukdang incident, when innocent citizens were executed during a politically motivated trial.

In Xin Chao, Xin Chao, a Korean family in 1990s Germany, quickly befriends a Vietnamese expat family. But they are arguing over a blunt remark that downplays South Korea’s alleged complicity in the Vietnam War.

The final two stories – Michaela and The Secret – revolve around the harrowing sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014 which killed 304 passengers, many of whom were high school students and their young teachers.

Choi’s handwriting sometimes appears as a single note. Characters in different stories seem to be cast from the same psychological mold despite their differences in age or background.

Yet it offers raw, haunting insights into the tug of human dynamics and relationships past their expiration date. She writes, “Some people break up after a big argument, but there are also people who gradually drift apart until they can’t face each other anymore.”

The regret that accompanies a lack of closure can be devastating.

If you like this, read: Picnic In The Storm by Yukiko Motoya, translated by Asa Yoneda (Little, Brown Book Group, 2019, $18.95, available here). In 11 Surreal Tales, Motoya finds the whimsical in the everyday through its female protagonists’ struggles with issues such as loneliness and the loss of spark in a relationship.

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