3 out of 5
I mean, we knew where this was going all along, yes? From that first line about a woman’s lifelong burden of dealing with men?
To writer Min Jin Lee’s credit, this isn’t a heavy-handed tale, nor is it exhaustively subdued. It feels accurate. I believe lead Sunja’s voice, and her actions and responses, just as I completely buy Hansu’s gentlemanly denials and not-so-sudden urges. But it’s a story that’s been written before – though the setting adds some flavor – which opens up a discussion on the nature of story, and of the need for everyone to go through their own paces of discovery. Meaning that this is an important tale to tell, and maybe this version of it reaches the right person at the right time, rendering my ‘I’ve read that before’ criticism irrelevant for that person. But not irrelevant for me. And though it certainly cannot be possible for any given writer to know the millions and billions of stories that have paved the way for their own, I have to believe that reading inspired their writing at some level, and that they would seek out material aligned with their own tastes…
It’s 1932 Korea. Sunja lives with her mother, helping to run the boarding house and focus on her chores instead of the doting – from others, never her mother – to give in to various suitors’ flirtations, to get married and ease the burden on her mum. Lee paints the era with details of cultural clash, during which Korean women have to he careful walking alone, lest they be harassed by the Japanese in some form or another . And though Sunja proudly maintains that she can handle herself in such a scuffle, one incident starts to take a particularly dark turn until it’s broken up by Hansu, a handsome businessman who’d been eyeing Sunja recently. This interaction eventually blossoms into a friendship – though Hansu is quite older than Sunja – and the type of friendship where you only meet in secret.
Things evolve from there. Hansu is a well-rounded character, not an explicit stand-in for Male Evil, just as Sunja isn’t presented as overly innocent or unawares of the world. So, as mentioned, you believe how this thing rolls out. Lee has a soothing writerly voice that doesn’t stretch too far for metaphor or imagery and carries you through events delicately but directly.
But beyond this compliment – it was well written – I can’t say the story held much surprise for me, or plucked at any particular emotion. You truly do know where it’s going, and every plot step just further confirms that knowledge.
Bear in mind I write flash fiction featuring a character named Shitasm. I might not be the intended audience.