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The Isolation Reads

The Isolation Reads: At Dusk

It’s a really strange time and we are all processing #SocialDistancing differently. Friends and colleagues will have noticed my increased presence on Twitter. I am mindlessly checking my email many, many times an hour and perpetuating my underlying anxieties. As a result, I have set myself some digital check out time every day. Sometimes I’m going to spend that time attacking my To Be Read pile. This is a (possibly short) chronicle of what I finish or abandon. Wherever I can, these reviews will be written immediately after finishing the book. These are not measured reflections. They are gut reactions.

Hwang Sok-yong. At Dusk. (Trans. Sora Kim- Russell). London: Scribe Publications. 2018.

“Have you read any Han Kang?” said the bookseller at Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham when I bought At Dusk earlier in the year. I gushed about how much I love her books and wish we had more of her work in translation and that I keep thinking about learning Korean so that I can read more. “Oh cool. I bought this because I like Han Kang too.”

While there is a stillness in At Dusk, which I associate with the sections of introspection in Kang’s books, Hwang Sok-yong incorporates less abstract and visceral elements in his writing. For some reason, I really thought that this book was going to be a thriller about the architecture and building lobbies in Korea but it definitely isn’t. You follow alternating narrators across a lifetime of experience in Korea’s shifting social environments. You spend the book thinking you understand the connections between them but you finally understand that you don’t. The twist in the relationships is clever. The revelations about one of the families involved are brutal and sad. At times, I felt like I was reading a novelised version of West Side Story (1956) with street gangs running around, and at others, like I was glimpsing into an understated domestic drama like Hirokazu Kore-eda’s awesome films Still Walking (2008) or Our Little Sister (2015).

I loved how filmic and peaceful Sok-young’s writing style felt. It meant that where there was violence or a heart-breaking revelation, I was caught oddly unawares. None of the characters in the story are content and their lives are gently turbulent but I felt like I was watching the story unfold through a barrier that deadened some of the noise. It’s a really clever writing style. It’s subtle and oddly soothing in a unnerving way because you have a delayed reaction to some of the tragedies as you unfold. That said, some of the sections of the architect Park Minwoo’s “rags to riches” story are quite dull and I found myself skimming in places rather than savouring every word.

Overall, I will definitely check out other books by Hwang Sok-yong and I really need to get some good books on South Korean history because apparently I love books by Korean authors about life in Korea!

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