With the festive season around the corner, it is time to get excited about good food, good friends, and loads of extra time to ourselves. The holidays are a time to rest and reset, a time to relax, curl up on the sofa, and find warmth between the comforting pages of a beloved book. So, with that in mind, we have put together a collection of what we think are the best Korean books on the market (in English translation). Buy these for friends and family, or enjoy them yourself with a nice cup of tea.
- For the day-dreaming type: The Dog Who Dared to Dream by Sun-Mi Hwang
Equally moving and uplifting, Sun-mi Hwang’s The Dog who Dared to Dream tells the story of Scraggly, a dog mum whose affection for her little ones and her dreams and aspirations make it easy for us to forget her canine form. Branded as an outcast due to her unusual physical traits, Scraggly dreams of a better life for herself and her little ones, and she is determined to do everything in her power to achieve her goals. With endearing personality and admirable strength of character, Scraggly provides a narrative that all can identify with; one that never fails to inspire hope for a better future.
- For the idealist: The Vegetarian by Han Kang
When Yeong-Hye suddenly announces that she’s going to become a vegetarian, chaos ensues as her family seek to come to terms with her unusual behaviour. However, haunted by terrifying dreams and alienated from the humdrum lives that her family live, Yeong-Hye remains unwavering in her resolution to follow her most visceral instincts wherever they might take her. Kang creates a dreamlike landscape dominated by burning obsessions that intertwine to shed new light on the struggles between human desires and social duties. All the characters in The Vegetarian bear with them the weight of expectations that they cannot cast off, as all are reminded that the satisfaction of desires always comes at a cost.
- For the nature lover: Uncomfortably Happy by Yeon-Sik Hong
A publicly acclaimed, award-winning manhwa, Uncomfortably Happy tells the story of cartoonist Yeon-Sik Hong as he and his wife abandon their claustrophobic and cacophonous flat in Seoul for the tranquil live of the Korean countryside. In search of some peace and quiet, Yeon-Sik and his wife soon discover that calm comes from within, and they’ll need to work hard at it. With beautifully detailed sketches of the Korean landscape and heart-warming depictions of the small struggles and victories of everyday life, this graphic novel explores the strength of the relationship between humans and nature, and between two human beings who can overcome all obstacles to love each other.
- For the tender soul: At Dusk by Hwang Sok-Yong
Park Minwoo is a self-made man, a successful businessman, and the envy of everyone who knows him. Having managed to build himself up from nothing, Minwoo seems to be bound to a future that gets brighter and brighter with each new deal, that is, until his ascending trajectory comes to a sudden halt. All is thrown into doubt when his company is investigated for corruption and a love from the past unexpectedly reappears to wreck havoc with Minwoo’s feelings. Authored by one of Korea’s most respected writers, At Dusk is a story of loss and rediscovery, and a story that explores progress and the cost of leaving things —and people— behind.
- For the history nerd: The Nine Cloud Dream by Kim Man-Jung
Considered one of the fundamental works of classic Korean literature, Kim Man-Jung’s The Nine Cloud Dream is a masterpiece of philosophical thought. Exploring the fundamental questions that haunt human life, Kim interrogates ideas of meaning and existence through the eyes of a young monk living in 9th-century China. Between fairy maidens, magical creatures, and reincarnations, the young protagonist learns to navigate the challenges of life and begins to understand his place in the world he inhabits. Drenched in references to Buddhism and Eastern philosophy, the novel combines an exquisite eye for historical detail with fantastical scenes, awakening the reader’s imagination and raising doubts on the principles that determine our human experience.
- For the social analyst : I’ll Go On by Hwang Jungeun
Bound together by the troubling memory of their mother Aeja, sisters Sora and Nana lead an existence characterised by senseless struggles and a notion of love as equal to death. That is, until Nana finds herself pregnant, and the two women begin on a path of recovery that will lead them to hell and back. With the help of childhood friend, Naghi, Sora and Nana experience a journey of self-questioning that unveils their secrets and liberates them from the history of suffering and resignation that plagues their existence. Hwang Jungeun’s exquisite style perfectly compliments the story’s powerful claim to social analysis, and opens up a path of reform that seeks to mend the soul of a broken generation.
- For the formidable girlboss: The Underground Village by Kang Kyeong-Ae
In a cultural landscape that has, for centuries, relegated women to the private realm of the home, The Underground Village is a wonderful anthology of short stories that seeks to uncover the oppressive nature of patriarchal authority and recover a female sense of selfhood in the context of colonial power and ethnic and gendered discrimination. With courage and defiance beyond measure, the stories in this collection explore themes of identity, self-actualisation and expression in experimental and unusual ways, giving the reader a blueprint of the lives, homes, families, and psyches of marginalised and colonised Koreans, as experienced by a uniquely female perspective.
Whatever our preferred genre, these Korean novels offer an opportunity to delve deeper into a fascinating culture, allowing us to explore the minute and mundane experiences of everyday Korea through the lenses of those who best understand them. At a time of the year where we can finally settle down to think and learn, we can find, between the pages of these books, that this little piece of the world is in fact closer to us that we ever thought. And this might just be the kind of escape we need.
Featured Image Source: Sharon McCutcheon ©Unsplash, 18.10.2019, www.unsplash.com
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