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The Girl who Wrote Loneliness, by Kyung-Sook Shin.

August 9, 2015

The Girl who Wrote Loneliness, by Kyung-Sook Shin.   Pegasus (2015), 400 pages

3 stars

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.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 9, 2015 3:27 pm

    I’ve been enjoying reading your reviews for some time–thank you!

    This one confuses me: it mentions Please Look after Mom as her first book, but Shin has been publishing for a couple of decades: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shin_Kyung-sook You’ve also reviewed her I’ll Be Right There. 🙂 As a 1963er, she’s not exactly young.

    I’ll look for this book because I wonder to what extent the book and this translation assume knowledge of the turmoil of Jeolla province circa 1980, as opposed to conveying it. It’s always interesting to me when things that would inherently confuse anglophone readers (as it were) achieve English translation. Or perhaps I’m guessing wrong–but many Koreans of that age group have strong memories and feelings about https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gwangju_Uprising and the end of Park’s presidency.

    • August 10, 2015 12:12 pm

      Thanks for correcting my wrong assumptions. I took as fact,not fiction; Shin claims that she was 32 when she was writing this book. That seems young to me. Her Mom was my introduction to her. I had noted in my review that she had published a number of books. Maybe I fell victim to book cover art.

      The Gwangju Uprising and the surrounding unrest around the end of Park’s rule are significant in this book. I am one of those who knew nothing about it. I could follow what she said in general as the killing of good citizens by bad, tyrannical leaders, but never really understanding the national particulars. Her perspective is tied to her narrator’s experience; hearing of the killing from a classmate who had been there, her brother’s involvement in the city, and the general mood of alarm and horror at what was happening. The personal account not the public one. Thanks for the link to a fuller account.

      As I have read more books by global women, I have observed the different ways in which they deal with the political context, especially with violence and war. As a safely protected American, I had not imagined war invading lives so vividly off the literal battlefield. Showing how that happens in a novel is difficult, of course. For me, Shin presented enough but I’d liked more. It is not always just a matter of translation, although that is a further complication. I dislike books that are treat the large context as backdrop, but I am currently reading an Australian novel about World War II which sometimes goes too far establishing context.

      Do comment again. I really appreciate her knowledge.

      • August 11, 2015 12:24 am

        Thank you for your gracious reply!

        Ah, I wonder whether this book is a translation of The Lone Room, which would place it closer to age 32. For my part I’d assumed that it’s a new work equally newly translated into English. Though my grasp of Korean language is weak, https://ko.wikipedia.org/wiki/%EC%8B%A0%EA%B2%BD%EC%88%99 (the Korean Wikipedia entry for Shin) doesn’t help; it’s fuller than the English one, but there’s not enough synopsis for disambiguation.

        Regardless, I’m glad to know of this book, which I wouldn’t have without your post–thanks again.

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