Han Yujoo, Wild Child of the South Korean Literary Scene

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Google South Korean writer Han Yujoo and you’ll see the adjectives “bright” and “young” a lot. Thirty-five years old, attractive, an active member in an experimental literary group, and an independent publisher with her own press—she’s assumed the role of wild child of the South Korean avant-garde literary scene. It must be both a gift, for the notoriety it attracts, and a burden, for the same reason. The Impossible Fairy Tale is her first book to be translated into English.

The Impossible Fairy Tale presents a dark and fraught conception of childhood. Set in a grade school classroom, its young students display the tendencies of budding sociopaths—they manipulate their parents, steal from each other, and kill small animals for fun. The boys play the “fainting game”. The goal is to asphyxiate the other person without killing them. These children are all id, but we sense that their psyches are still developing. They are in transition. It’s a delicate balance between portraying children as immature and portraying them as monsters. Han Yujoo does the former.

The catalyst occurs when all the students’ school journals go missing, only to be returned the next day, filled with disturbing messages written in an anonymous hand. One of the journals belongs to a pretty young girl named Mia.

Mia, we are told by the narrator, is lucky. Her mother loves her. She has two fathers who dote on her. They give her everything she asks for: an expensive set of seventy-two German watercolor pencils, a sweater with a deer on it, a puppy. She’s popular at school and gets good grades. Her life is perfect in the way that a spoiled little girl’s life would appear perfect to adult eyes.

The Child is Mia’s classmate. The Child lurks on the periphery, observing, always careful not to attract attention. She is completely isolated. And while the flaws in the other children’s’ cruelty might be explained by a still-developing sense of right and wrong, the Child’s personality is entirely the product of parental abuse, both physical and mental. Han Yujoo conveys this not by telling us what is done to the Child, but through powerful and heart-wrenching descriptions of the Child’s state of mind. It is the Child who steals and writes in the other children’s journals.

The Child flinches, but the movement is unreasonably quiet, too quiet to disturb the air. The Child looks like some kind of vermin. But not in the usual way one might use the word to describe someone; the Child knows how to make her body small and flat, like a cockroach. The Child is neither erased or transparent. The Child alienates herself from the marks, traces, and stains. For no reason. Everything has a reason, but the reason the traces—left on her body as stains—have not been erased, even by the rain, has not been spoken. Even as she cries, she must not cry. Even as she speaks, she must not speak. It is impossible to describe the Child’s expression or voice. Every second as she twists apart and collapses, she merely maintains the smallest shape. Despite how many times something has collapsed, it is always possible to collapse again. Until now…

Mia and the Child live parallel lives, one lucky and the other unlucky. When those lives intersect, the result is violent and tragic.

Their story is substantial and self-contained: a complete plot, with a beginning, middle and end. But Han Yujoo cleaves her book into two parts. Part one is the straightforward narrative about Mia, the Child, their classmates, and the defaced journals. Part two removes us from the fictional world of part one and into a metafictional world which forces us to confront the relationship between character (the Child) and author (Han Yujoo). It explores a series of nonsensical questions about responsibility, guilt, and redemption. While some metafictional elements exist in part one, in part two Han Yujoo sheds all restraint.

And so we get a jumble of stylistic tricks and techniques designed to achieve an overall tone. Words and phrases are repeated throughout the book, often without context. When done subtly, the repetition amplifies plot tension and creates sentences that are beautiful because of their strange rhythms—as in the one where Mia’s mother flips angrily through her daughter’s journal because she suspects Mia has been lying to her.

Parents who have birthed a child are able to kill it, and things like this happen because they think the child is their property; things like this happen whenever a child’s overgrown secrets are found—secrets parents are unable to accept, unable to accept that a child they had borne holds secrets, that the child has overstepped its bounds.

More often than not The Impossible Fairy Tale’s over-reliance on this type of gimmickry only serves to clutter the text. In addition to repetition, Han Yujoo is fond of wordplay. There doesn’t seem to be a writing trick she eschews. She loses her characters in surreal dreamscapes for paragraphs at a time. She plays with puns and homophones. The girls’ fates are foreshadowed. There are stand-alone sentences that rely on word oppositions, followed by manic, stream-of-conscious soliloquies propelled by word associations.

Before me is an enormous stadium. What’s the largest building around here? The stadium is too big for my field of vision. People are pouring out of the exits. Could I give each person a name? Is there a name for the top of the stadium, the top part of the top part? Is there a name for the left part of the stadium? Does the person smoking beside the exit with his head bowed have a name? Could I give each fleck of ash a name? Could I give each plum of smoke a name? Does each fading ray of light have a name? The stadium’s scoreboard reads 8:47 p.m. Could I give each flagstone a name? The game is over. What could I call the time after a game is over?

At times it can be a bit much.

This self-conscious precociousness is Han Yujoo’s greatest weakness. The substance of her novel is obscured by the literary gymnastics she determinedly performs on page after page. A compulsory performance made doubly frustrating because the writing itself is good. The prose, the wordplay, the puns, the stream of consciousness, the silly little games—all are extremely well-executed and, in small doses, a pleasure to read. But she allows the narrative to sprawl.

Han Yujoo’s writing is fearless and distinguished by a refusal to acknowledge syntactical boundaries or rules. But I can’t help but feel her lack of discipline does herself and her book a disservice. The Impossible Fairy Tale is a series of interesting and well-executed components that fail to coalesce into a single, successful novel.

Tara Cheesman-Olmsted is an active member in a growing online community dedicated to promoting international authors & books in translation. Her reviews can be found at Literary Kicks, Necessary Fiction & Harriet (the blog of the Poetry Foundation). She was a panelist at the 2015 PEN World Voices Festival in New York City. Since 2009 she has written the blog BookSexy Review under the name tolmsted. More from this author →