Birdie, the ten-year-old protagonist of Ha Seong-Nan’s short story, “Waxen Wings,” sways on a swing, dreaming of flying. There is nothing surprising there: a young child dreaming of taking off into the sky. But Birdie seems to have a special talent for flying, an ability to “remain airborne” just “a little longer than the other children,” and so her career as a young gymnast begins. Yet, as the narrative follows Birdie through her vertiginous ascent to sporting success, there remains a constant and consistent sense that, as steep and swift as the climb to the top is, so will the fall also be, because, “like Newton’s apple, your small, light body is pulled to the earth,” always to fall back on itself.
“Waxen Wings,” like all the narratives in Ha’s splendid short story collection, Flowers of Mold, is a magnificent expression of sufferings and anxieties that transcend generational barriers. The power of Ha’s writing lies precisely in her ability to transform ordinary lives into deeply disquieting depictions of a human identity that is both frozen in time and trapped in its passing. “Waxen Wings” is at once a coming-of-age story, a memoir, and a dream-narrative, an aggregation of unfulfilled expectations and continued and renewed hopes.
The fact that Ha’s stories were first published in Korean in 1999 is no matter. Twenty years later, their long overdue English translation seems still incredibly pertinent, if not more so. The ten stories that make up Ha’s collection are all perfectly unsettling, and showcase the author’s exquisitely off-centre, bizarre, and empathic view of the world. “The Woman Next Door” starts out with the anthropormophisation of Yeongmi’s washing machine: “Since it’s done nothing expect wash, rinse, and spin for ten years, no wonder it’s in bad shape.” Rather than de-humanising Yeongmi, however, the washing machine becomes an object of fascination, the symbol of an admirable resistance against a husband whose words “show how much he doesn’t understand,” and a life of isolation.
As the story progresses and the objects that make up her life as mother and wife begin to disappear, Yeongmi gradually starts losing her own sense of who she is. Eventually, locked out of her house and her own existence, she is replaced by a newer, fresher, less aware version of herself, Myeonghui, whose name sounds, ominously, like a mirror version of Yeongmi. “The Woman Next Door” provides an example of Ha’s fascination with the idea that things are not always—or, in fact, hardly ever—what they seem, an idea that she returns to over and over throughout the collection.
In “The Rearview Mirror” a security guard trained to detect imperceptible and seemingly insignificant deceptions falls in love with a beautiful woman who makes of illusion her profession. The story takes a turn when a trip to new horizons ends in a terrible crash, and the man is reminded that “blind spots” exist “wherever there is light and shadow.” “The Rearview Mirror,” like all of Ha’s narratives, deliberately refuses to satisfy expectations, making for a delightfully sinister read instead. The vaguely supernatural elements that are dotted around the collection add to the sense of unsettlement, not because they create unimaginable dread, but because they become, in Ha’s world, plausible outcomes.
Rather than offering a gothic response to current concerns, Ha’s stories rely on the horror of the fact that what we thought impossible might, instead, be quite possible. That it might, in fact, be happening before our very eyes. Flowers of Mold is certainly not an easy read for everyone. Although it approaches its sensitive themes and issues in a delicate, often veiled manner, the markedly sinister feel of the collection and its sometime disturbing subject matter could still be cause for concern. Yet, Ha accomplishes her aims in an impeccable manner, and is capable of exploring the horror of human existence in a way that both distances and gives perspective without ever alienating. A very worthy read altogether.