A while back I reviewed the popular Korean novel Please Look After Mom by Shin Kyung Sook. This time I read the English translation of her next novel The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness. This book was published in English last year but was actually written before Please Look After Mom.
The protagonist is now a successful writer in her 30s, but she reflects back to the time when she was a poor teenager working in a factory in Seoul. She lived with other family members in cramped conditions where everyone struggled to make ends meet.
As a piece of social history, the story is moving. The book covers the 70s and 80s when times were hard under a military dictatorship and the people felt the pressure of building the country’s economy. Just like the writer, many people at that time moved from the countryside to the capital to work in factories. I felt angry hearing about the life of the factory workers who were treated poorly and had very few rights.
A good chunk of the story deals with the terrible and often violent struggles the workers had with management as they tried to make a union. The workers were manipulated as well as harassed – they were offered the opportunity to go to evening school but then told they could only go if they left the union. Major political events come up in the story such as the Gwangju uprising of 1980 where hundreds of pro-democracy student protesters were killed by police.
Having been through hard times herself and watched those around her struggle too, the protagonist is full of angst, still riddled with thoughts from the past. And she seems to live in a state of guilt. As a young woman she feels guilt about her brother having to support her, and she feels guilt at betraying the factory union leader (who was very nice) because she wanted to go to school. And now in her 30s she ruminates over the writing process and how what she writes (or doesn’t write) is perceived by others or affects others.
It’s a semi-autobiographical work and some points (such as the fact that her mother can’t read) also crop up in her novel Please Look After Mom – which I reviewed before. Perhaps it’s due to the translation but I don’ t find the writing style or language particularly appealing. In the English translation the characters are named as they would be called in Korean -for example ‘older brother’ and ‘cousin’ – but I found this unnatural in English although I can see that the difference causes a translation problem.
Due to the time it is set, it’s no wonder that the tone of the book is dark and gloomy. The title of the book says it all really. But if you enjoy autobiographies which focus on human struggles and if you are interested in this part of Korean history, then this book might appeal. The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness is available from Amazon