Summer in Korea is hot, humid, sticky, and wet. Despite its northern location, Korea’s summer temperatures regularly rise above thirty degrees Celsius in June, July, and August. To add to the heat, Korea also experiences its own “monsoon season”, with daily rainfall for much of July.
Whether you are living in Korea or elsewhere, one easy to way to forget about the summer heat is to grab a book, find some shade, and get lost in stories from Korea’s past. Filled with tales of family, hope, love, and mystery, these five books will give you a glimpse into the fascinating world of Korean literature.
1. The Calligrapher’s Daughter (Eugenia Kim) – While this book is a novel, it is based off of the life of the author’s mother growing up during the Japanese Occupation in Korea. The main character, a young girl without a name, is the daughter of a long line of calligrapher’s. The novel follows her life, as well as her family’s life, from 1915 to 1945. With scenes set in parts of Seoul, such as Changdeokgung Palace, it is a great read especially for those who live in Seoul or who may be planning a vacation to Seoul in the near future.
Having read through this book several months ago, it still remains well imprinted in my mind and imagination. Despite differences in culture, gender, time period, and family structure, the scenarios throughout the book are both believable and relatable. As the daughter, who is later given the name Najin after her mother’s home town, struggles between her own desires and those of her family, she comes to realizations on religion, her career opportunities as a woman in society, whether to marry, the impact of adopting “Western” practices, and how to respect her family and their name. If there is one book on this list you read this year, this book would be it.
2. Please Look After Mom (Kyung-sook Shin) – Both popular within Korea and around the world, this novel has helped lead the push for further Korean literature to be translated into English. Beginning with an aging mother losing her way in the Seoul Metro and disappearing, the family of the missing mother pull upon their memories of their mother in order to guess where she may have gone. Each family member is challenged through this ordeal to consider if they have done enough to care for and show love to their family in a modern and ever-changing world.
Take just a moment and imagine if your mother were missing. What would you do? Where would you look? What would you draw on to make guesses of her whereabouts? And while you ask these questions, you are reminded that each night you come home having not found her, you know that she may be lost somewhere out there feeling hungry, cold, and scared. The sense of urgency you may feel in this situation is exactly how this book keeps you connected from beginning to end in hopes that the family may find their mother alive and safe.
3. Three Generations (Yom Sang-Seop) – Written in 1931, Yom Sang-Seop’s novel has become essential reading for students in Korea. And while this book is labelled by many students as a bit long and boring, its content gives the reader a glimpse into the lives of Korean families under Japanese Occupation in the 1930’s. Based around the Jo Family, each member must deal with family expectations, the limits of one’s social status, and fighting emotion and desire.
The complexity of relationships within this novel shows just how involved a higher-class family may have been in early 20th century Korean society. As the father’s past affairs come to light and the grandfather must consider the succeeding heir of the family, the son heads off to Japan to study, leaving behind his less-fortunate best friend to deal with the family’s secrets. On top of the family’s challenges, they must also deal with living under the watchful eye of the Japanese Occupation leaders and police. This book isn’t quite an “easy read”, but I was kept interested by the way Yom Sang-Seop was able to weave and connect so many characters into one captivating story.
4. The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly (Hwang Sun-Mi) – A bittersweet story of a mother Hen and her baby duckling (yes, I did say duckling), this tale can easily be read in one relaxing afternoon. In the story, the mother hen dreams of leaving the coop to live like the other animals on the farm. But when she escapes from the coop, she quickly comes face to face with the outside world. A world that is both care-free and yet full of dangers, she struggles to raise a duckling as her own and protect it from the predators lurking in the wild.
After reading this book, I sent this book to my mother back in the USA and recommended that she read it. The effort the mother hen puts into protecting and raising her little duckling made me realize the emotions my mother (and most mothers) may feel as she accepts that her son lives far away from the protection and safety of her home. As I recommend this book, a warning to readers: please keep a box of tissues nearby. You will cry.
5. The Guest (Hwang Sok-Yong) – Another book that is largely based on real events, this haunting novel should perhaps be saved for a rainy summer day. It is deep, often gruesome, sometimes shocking, and will hit you at the heart. In the novel, Reverend Yosop takes a sponsored trip back to North Korea to hopefully connect with his relatives. In doing so, he is met by the ghosts of his brother, uncle, and countless other victims of the Korean War. Follow these ghosts as they ignite the memories of war and force the reader to consider his or her own demons from the past.
The most valuable aspect of this book as a reader is that, through the stories of these ghosts, we get a depiction of the events that occurred during the war from a variety of points of view. In Yosop’s hometown, a 52-day massacre occurred that pit friend against friend, brother against brother, and countryman against countryman. Hearing about the same battle from several different perspectives reminds the reader just how difficult it is to place blame on any one person or group in situations like war. The complexity of the situation goes far beyond what one person can comprehend and recall.