Literature | Drama | Translations

FAMILIAR THINGS by Hwang Sok-yong, Book Review

Familiar Things… A new novel from one of South Korea’s most celebrated contemporary writers.

Hwang Sok-yong Familiar Things review

Familiar Things Synopsis:

Seoul. On the outskirts of South Korea’s glittering metropolis is a place few people know about: a vast landfill site called Flower Island. Home to those driven from the city by poverty, is it here that 14-year-old Bugeye and his mother arrive, following his father’s internment in a government ‘re-education camp’.

Living in a shack and supporting himself by weeding recyclables out of the refuse, at first Bugeye’s life on Flower Island is hard. But then one night he notices mysterious lights around the landfill. And when the ancient spirits that still inhabit the island’s landscape reveal themselves to him, Bugeye’s luck begins to change – but can it last?

Vibrant and enchanting, Familiar Things depicts a society on the edge of dizzying economic and social change, and is a haunting reminder to us all to be careful of what we throw away.

Translated by Sora Kim Russell

(Scribe Publications)

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BOOK REVIEW

From the way Hwang Sok-yong imbues Bugeye’s arrival at a landfill site with wonderment and promise, I knew early on that Familiar Things would be thought provoking.

The tall silver grass swaying on the banks of the stream in the dusky light made it seem like they had suddenly arrived at a foreign, faraway land.

But it is Hwang Sok-yong’s juxtaposition of opportunity with the harsh reality of his character’s circumstances that leaves a lasting impression.

The smell was unbearably foul, a vile combination of every bad odour in the world — manure, sewage, spoiled food, hard-boiled soy sauce, fermented soy bean paste. Clinging to their faces and forearms and clothing in the dark, boldly alighting on the corners of their mouths and eyes, and probing at them with cold, sticky tongues were swarms of flies.

It is hard not to be moved by the deep-seated resilience of the people that make a life from what others discard, and the special relationships Bugeye forms as he finds his place in this microcosm of society.

Bugeye liked the fact that Baldspot didn’t say much unless he was spoken to. But despite sounding slow, he seemed to pick up on things pretty fast. Maybe he was deeper than he looked. Being teased and picked on by other kids had a way of deepening a person. Before he’d learned to fight back Bugeye, too, had been a quiet kid who kept to himself.

Through artful use of simile and symbolism Hwang Sok-yong explores the contextual relevance of utility – whether material, animal or human – everything from the everyday practice of discarding unopened food past the use-by date to the process of re-education, the nature of charity and value society attributes to an individuals’ existence.

Although I was aware of the prevalence of ghost-lore and spirits in Asian cultures, I was at first sceptical of the introduction of ‘dokkaebi‘ into this otherwise harsh reality. Thankfully though their contribution to Familiar Things is one of hope and perspective, broadening the scope of this novel’s other key theme – the interconnectedness of all things, despite the isolation felt by those marginalised by society.

While I of course have no means of comparing this text to the original Korean, the subtlety and perceptiveness of the prose in Familiar Things points to a translation by Sora Kim-Russell of the highest quality.

I have read very little contemporary South Korean literature, but on the strength of Familiar Things, I will be seeking out more – and the works of Hwang Sok-yong in particular.

BOOK RATING: The Story 4 / 5 ; The Writing 4 / 5

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Genre: Literature, Drama, Translation

About the Author, Hwang Sok-yong

Hwang Sok-yong was born in 1943 and is arguably Korea’s most renowned author. In 1993, he was sentenced to seven years in prison for an unauthorized trip to the North to promote exchange between artists in North and South Korea. Five years later, he was released on a special pardon by the new president. The recipient of Korea’s highest literary prizes and shortlisted for the Prix Femina Etranger, his novels and shorts stories are published in North and South Korea, Japan, China, France, Germany, and the United States. Novels published prior to Familiar Things include The Ancient Garden, The Story of Mister Han, The Guest, Princess Bari and The Shadow of Arms.

About the Translator, Sora Kim-Russell

Sora Kim-Russell is a literary translator, biracial Korean American born and raised in the US, now living in Seoul, South Korea. She teaches courses in translation at Ewha Womans University and LTI Korea. In addition to Familiar Things she has translated several novels and many works of short fiction. Her own poetry and prose has appeared in various publications including Pebble Lake Review, The Diagram, and Onthebus.

Other reviews of Familiar Things

Goodreads, Tony’s Reading List, Post Magazine

* My receiving a copy of Familiar Things from the publisher for review purposes did not impact the expression of my honest opinions in the review above.