The Girl who Wrote Loneliness, by Kyung-Sook Shin.
The Girl who Wrote Loneliness, by Kyung-Sook Shin. Pegasus (2015), 400 pages
An unconventional novel by a Korean woman exploring her own attempt to write about the events of her own coming of age.
Kyung-Sook Shin is a young Korean writer whose first book, Please Look after Mom, was widely read and well received. In her new book, she moves further away from a conventional style as she explores her own past and present. In one narrative, she writes about herself in the present struggling to write. In the other she returns to her experiences when she was sixteen to nineteen years old, a period which was so disturbing and confusing that she has buried her memories of it. By writing about what happened in these years, she hopes to face its pain and move on. The two narratives are interwoven flowing into each often without transitions. She begins and ends the book by commenting on her work.
This book, I believe, has turned out to be not quite fact and not quite fiction, but something in between. I wonder if it can be called literature. I ponder the act of writing. What does writing mean?
For me, the real strength of the novel was Shin’s ability to convey working-class life in Korea from 1978 through 1981. Shin tells how, at the age of 16, she left her home village and went to the city to live with her Oldest Brother and work in an electronics factory. The conditions were dire both at the factory and in the tiny room she shared with her two brothers and a cousin. Working conditions are bad and the workers trying to form a union face retaliation. The Korean government was also authoritarian, and one brother joins the radical opposition. While Shin remained aloof at the factory and school, her family bonds were strong and, for me as an American reader, unusual. Eventually, Shin met and became involved with a young woman living downstairs. While they became close, I found their relationship difficult to envision.
Generally I like books with distinctive, experimental styles and ones that articulates the writing process, but in Shin’s new book, I found her technique distracting. She explains that her method is to work without an outline and to let words flow spontaneously. At times, I felt that this process resulted in a book that read like a first draft. I missed the discipline and polish of more conventional writing. Shin is certainly talented and I liked her story, but not as much as her first book.
I recommend this book to readers interested in Korea or in working class life in the global economy and to those like free-form writing.
Thanks to Edelweiss and Pegasus for sending me an electronic edition of this book.