Wednesday, August 9, 2017

WITMonth Day 9 | One Hundred Shadows by Hwang Jungeun

Something that has happened more and more frequently to me in recent years is an odd tendency to start a book, be moderately disappointed by the first chapter, set it aside for a few days (or weeks), return to it, and fall in deep. This doesn't happen with every book, of course, but it's happened often enough that I've taken it as a sort of indicator: Sometimes you start a book at the wrong time. Give it a moment, give it a week, give it a few months... you might end up enjoying it a lot more when the time is right.

Hwang Jungeun's One Hundred Shadows (tr. Jung Yewon) felt very much like that sort of book. I read the first chapter during a particularly stressful week and found myself put off somewhat by the quotation-mark-less writing and the odd, almost airy style. I set it aside for a week. When I picked it up again, the prose felt like it had undergone some sort of transformation (though it was obviously I who underwent the change...). The simple style felt fresh and sharp, unburdened by unnecessary weight or false "literariness".

And I liked it.

It's an odd, sort of melancholic sort of book, framed by some rather nice symmetry and a quiet sort of social message. Curiously, based on the jacket description, I was expecting One Hundred Shadows to focus more explicitly on class differences and social inequality in modern Seoul, but... it's not that sort of book at all. Not that there aren't politics - narrator Eungyo and her friend-maybe-more Mujae discuss at some point the definition of the word "slum", and Eungyo often thinks about the state of their status as repairmen of sorts, working in a cheap market that has been marked for demolition. Both characters acknowledge the difficulties they've had, with Mujae referencing his inherited debts and the cost of college ("I didn't think what I was learning [in college] was worth getting into debt for") and Eungyo contemplating her reasons for dropping out of school as a teenager. In that sense, One Hundred Shadows is a solidly "working class" sort of a novel, something that shouldn't be as rare as it is.

In the midst of this political exploration of class comes a fantasy-like twist on it: rising shadows. The short novel begins with Eungyo following her newly-risen shadow out into the woods; Mujae is there to guide her back to reality. Over the course of the novel, several different characters describe stories of their rising shadows or undergo similar events. When his shadow rises, Eungyo notes that "it seemed as though Mujae was no longer present." These events seem to become more and more frequent as the novel progresses, linked perhaps to the anxieties of the neighborhood as the threat (and action) of demolition looms closer. Certainly references to shadow-risings that happen earlier are linked to death and despair...

And yet there's a surprising sweetness to the story. Eungyo and Mujae's friendship develops slowly, with the two supporting each other and balancing each other nicely. Each is there for the other when their shadow rises, and their growing bond seems to reflect that sort of deeper connection. It's a refreshingly honest sort of relationship, never overly explicit or harshly obvious.

This can be said of the novel overall - it's understated. The jacket, as I've already mentioned, calls this a "hard-edged novel", which seems like the last term I'd use for this sloping story (though many other reviewers have adopted it). It's certainly powerful, but the writing is almost explicitly quiet, with the fantasy elements also wrapping the story rather gently. It's more like a softly rolling dreamscape, but one that refuses to forget the world that shapes it. One Hundred Shadows doesn't have to be loud in order to make its political/social point clear to readers. On the contrary - I found that I much preferred this character-focused approach. It makes for a powerful, unique little novel, and one that I can easily recommend.

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