Publication Date: September 2015
Format: Hardcover, 400 pgs
Translated from the Korean by Ha-Yun Jung
I fell in love with Kyung-Sook Shin's prose after reading I'll Be Right There. In that story, she has eloquently captured the voices of her characters and made me empathise and care for them. You can say her writing is poetic because that's how I felt about it - beautiful, meaningful and thought-provoking. Thus, when I found this latest release I grabbed a copy without bothering to read the blurb. Do you have one of those moments? I'm sure you understand what I'm talking about. Anyway...
Written in the past (the '70s) and present setting alternatively, this story reflects the life of an unnamed character, a 16-year-old girl who travels to Seoul from her countryside home to work in a factory while studying part time. The other time frame is where we see her as a thirty-ish woman, already a successful novelist but occasionally finds herself locked away in her 16-year-old's loneliness self when she'd dreamt of writing; a pitchfork which had marked an unforgettable memory after it'd pierced her foot and led her dumping it into their well and finally, the pain and struggles she'd gone through working at the factory, with low wages and unfair policies which have made the employees either shed their dignity and their teeth or clash with their superiors and risk losing their jobs. Most of them are in their twenties, excluding the narrator, who's managed to get in thanks to her oldest brother. Despite the hard work, sleep deprivation and most of all, the unfairness and the extreme exploitation of employees' rights. While some of them grit their teeth and move on, hoping to have a better life once they have a certificate to grant them better jobs, the others retaliated by forming a Union and risk losing their jobs; their dignity and their self-righteousness are the only things that keep them going.
But it is not only the narrator who is working hard, her oldest and second brother, together with her 19-year-old cousin, are also out working to pursue their dreams. The narrator's oldest brother works the hardest amongst all, perhaps being the eldest with much responsibility, he works two jobs and continues to do so while serving his military service, even if it means wearing a wig to cover his bald head so he can appear as a civilian.
Aside from the relationship with her siblings and her cousin, the narrator also shares with readers her interactions with a girl who lives in the same complex (which is actually a building with rooms for the employees to stay so they can travel to and from work easily) and how their connection would later make her reflect upon her pent up feelings despite many passing years and each has gone their separate ways.
Not quite fact and not quite fiction, as the narrator put it, this novel, at times read like a memoir and one couldn't help but to sweep away by the narrator's voice and the haunting journey she has led us into following. Melancholy and definitely insightful, once again I felt myself mesmerised by Ms. Shin’s beautiful writing and her storytelling. And I just got this feeling that she's written a very personal story in this book.