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Violets (2001)

af Kyung-sook Shin

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"San, a neglected young woman, experiences the violence and isolation of late twentieth-century Korean society"--
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Viser 3 af 3
While I enjoyed reading this, I spent quite a bit of the time thinking that I had no idea where this book was going or what it was trying to do. Thinking to myself — are the violets a metaphor? A metaphor for what? What is going on with this character? Am I just being dense, too exhausted or distracted to get it, or is this intentional?

Things mostly came together for me in the final scenes, but they didn't REALLY click until I read the author's afterword. This was a very rare case where I wish I had read the afterword first, I think I would have gotten more out of the book. (Normally I don't even read introductions.) The book is a little drifty sometimes (but of course, so is San, the main character), and San's behavior is often odd and difficult to identify with or even understand. I think the back copy set me up to expect a different kind of book than what the author was trying to deliver. (I was reading an ARC though, maybe the published version is different?)

There was a lot of loneliness here, and a few scenes that I think will really stick with me. I am definitely glad that I read it, and am more likely now to seek out other books by Shin. ( )
  greeniezona | Feb 18, 2024 |
An unflinching look at women trying to be their own true selves in 1990s Seoul, with the deck stacked against them. The translation is excellent. ( )
  Perednia | May 1, 2022 |
Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: We join San in 1970s rural South Korea, a young girl ostracised from her community. She meets a girl called Namae, and they become friends until one afternoon changes everything. Following a moment of physical intimacy in a minari field, Namae violently rejects San, setting her on a troubling path of quashed desire and isolation.

We next meet San, aged twenty-two, as she starts a job in a flower shop. There, we are introduced to a colourful cast of characters, including the shop's mute owner, the other florist Su-ae, and the customers that include a sexually aggressive businessman and a photographer, who San develops an obsession for. Throughout, San's moment with Namae lingers in the back of her mind.

A story of desire and violence about a young woman who everyone forgot, VIOLETS is a captivating and sensual read, full of tragedy and beauty.

I RECEIVED MY DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS+. THANK YOU.

My Review
: This translation from the Korean joins a widening stream of Korean-culture transplants...Squid Game, Minari, this author's previously translated novel [Please Look After Mom]...making their roots into American pop-cultural soil.

If you've yet to explore the trickle, start now before it's a flood. I think it's wonderful because English-language monoglot culture gets stale and boring and all alike if we don't seek out fresh infusions of talent and stories. And, like all the best translations, this story's timelessness is rendered in prose that could very easily have been first created in English...none of the occasional signals of awkwardly trying to explicate something that one word in the translated language would convey whole and entire. That is a fine achievement indeed, probably helped along by the fact that things like "minari" aren't quite as furrin as they would've been in 2011, when Please Look After Mom was published.

What happens in this story is not particularly new or unusual. A girl is born to unfit parents:
In a house with shut doors, a mother closes her eyes as the baby’s grandmother offers her the newborn. The mother knows what will happen now. An uncelebrated girl. The infant accepts her mother’s closed eyes in lieu of a loving caress, perhaps having intuited her fate from the womb, and does not bother crying. The sound of the monsoon fills the house. Underneath the porch, a dog curls its legs into itself. Can the baby hear the sound of the rain? She’s about to fall asleep in her grandmother’s hands. That same night, her father gives his daughter’s face only a cursory glance.

Thus does another unwanted girl enter the world that won't ever bother to see her, really even to look at her. She's just...there. Her father never bothers to return; her mother never bothers with her at all, constantly seeking a man to care for her. (To be fair, an ordinary Korean woman's opportunities a generation ago weren't plentiful, and San's mother wasn't exceptional.)
Her mother. San thinks about her from time to time.

If she had begged her to stay, in front of that carefully prepared food, would she have listened? Why had San never once tried to hold her back? Wherever it was that her mother went, she never forgot to send her daughter money for school until San graduated.

The last time San had seen her mother was when she was a freshman in high school.

Children of addicts, the world over, tell versions of this same story. In this case, San's mother is addicted to men. She can't live without a man taking care of her, and she sacrifices the daughter she didn't want to get what she does want.

Author Shin isn't solely criticizing the mother. She is critiquing the social organization, the patriarchy, that privileges men and their desires over women and their needs so completely, so thoroughly, that the women are hollow and meaningless without a man. It is repulsive and it is reprehensible, and much abuse and violence simply are borne by the women because what option do they have? What other choice can they make? In San's case, she is so hollowed out by the complete absence of love from her mother (or anyone else) that she enacts the form of love she knows: rejection follows violence, as it must.

There is nothing forgiving in San. She forgives nothing, she is forgiven nothing, throughout the book. She is alone, she feels lonely of it (or so we infer...I don't know that she would be able to articulate the unmoored, disconnected reality that lonely people all share). For this, among other, reasons, this is a hard story to read. If you have ever been truly, down-to-the-bone lonely, this might be a triggering read for you. I haven't run across too many reads with this hyperconcentrated focus on loneliness, or too many with more success in rendering an emotional state into prose.
A stranger to every single person in the crowd, San finds herself blocking the sidewalk as people swerve to avoid her. Even if a carnival were to break out around her, the vacant expression on her face looks entrenched enough to persist.

Because she knows nothing of love, loving, being loved, San sees nothing except the one moment when everything changed, when the one love she thought she had was denied and made nothing. Not even attempting to find her former home nets San anything, she sees not the fields of minari she grew up among, where her life irrevocably emptied out and flowed away from her, but careful rectilinear plots of...something not minari. She has no roots. She feels no kinship.
Nothing happened this past summer. Only that, in the hot sun from time to time, a brief thought would appear and disappear around me. That thought was closer to me than any of the flowers in the shop. Even as I tried to capture the thought on paper, the heat would exhaust me and I'd give up. There were plenty of things I gave up, using the heat as an excuse. Which means I spent this past summer repeatedly deciding to do things and then giving up on them. As if my life were an exhibition of how good I am at giving up. It was that kind of summer.

It was that kind of life. It won't end well, it didn't begin well or go on well; that much we know. There's nothing hopeful in this story. Women like San aren't ever anyone's focus...her job in the flower shop working with and for Su-ae notwithstanding. She receives the desperate, genuine love of Su-ae as...nothing. San is fixated on emptiness...her only friend abandoned her!...and on men she does not want. She needs their love. She doesn't want it. She decided long ago that love wasn't something she could have, feel, receive, give. And so when it's offered to her she...doesn't see it. She does see the want of one man, she feels the desperate pull of another man on her attention, and gets nothing but unwanted results.
Every attempt to resist is met with his greater strength. In a moment, her head begins to droop.

She's released onto the street.
Her mind is completely taken over, her body a husk. No one seems to take note of the loneliness she carries. Just some woman in the crowd, unaware that her top is undone. A more observant person might have noticed her cheek slightly swollen from having been punched, the thin lines of her face a touch asymmetrical because of it. Someone might see her pale face and think, How could anyone ever look so pale....

A life of being unwanted, invisible, and it comes down to a final indignity. San is raped. Her hollowness filled at last with the violence that is all she can accept. It isn't in her to accept the reality of her situation, being unloved and unwanted, then seek out change. That's simply impossible. She leaves safety, courts rejection, and seeks oblivion.

Leaving behind only the tiniest of wakes...the end of the story of Oh San is a poignant piece of mythologizing that fit so poorly onto the rest of the story that I was forced by honest anger and sincere disdain for its sentimentality to whack a star off my rating. After a night's sleep where I dreamed of the photographer and San:
Violets. They bloom everywhere, making them seem more like weeds than proper flowers. San takes a closer look at them. Their little green leaves are small, their purple blossoms tiny. Before she came to the flower shop, she knew them as swallow flowers. Memories of entangling two swallow flower stems together and pulling them apart— one side was bound to snap. Whoever’s stem didn’t was the winner. She forgot what the prizes were, but she’d played the game many times. They did it with broadleaf plantains; they did it with foxtails.

The man keeps pressing the shutter and mumbling something discontentedly. “What’s so pretty about these flowers? Such nonsense.” His disappointment is so palpable, it makes her apologetic.

...I realized that his arc needed an end, too. I might not like that end, but I would've felt cheated (if not right away, then after my irritation with the whole ending subsided) had it not been there. So back came a half-star, though I confess with some grumbling on my part.

I think this small, powerful story deserves your eyeblinks. I think we should all resolve to notice the Oh Sans of this world, to extend a welcome to the table of them, to recognize their living presence instead of making them ghosts before they die. ( )
  richardderus | Apr 13, 2022 |
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