The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness by Kyung-Sook Shin | Book Review

The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness is a split timeline exploration of a female Korean author attempting to fictionalize her life to protect her relationships but discovers that the gilded tower she has created to live in, also isolates her.

In this novel, we are treated to short bursts of narrative that move between the two defined periods of the narrator’s life – the first involves her leaving home at sixteen to live in Seoul with Older Brother and Cousin, working day jobs in a factory during the struggle to establish workers’ unions, and attending night school to escape the drudgery of working class life; the second begins at age 32 when she has become a published author and people from her past keep asking why she doesn’t write about them. The author’s decision to run the two timelines concurrently makes the past a very real part of her present, and underscores how she comes to her decisions but also the repercussions she experiences because of them.

Within the narrative, the author represents recent historical events like the Gwangju uprising and the suicidal tendencies that plagued young people in the aftermath of the revolution. She also explores several social issues like poverty, the sacrificial responsibilities that family members often have to take on, the taboo relationship between two women in a rigidly traditional society, the harassment endured in low-skilled job environments and the pressure to behave selfishly during a divide-and-conquer situation.

This is my second novel from this author (I read I’ll be Right There last year – click to read my review). I saw glimpses of brilliance in both novels and because I am interested in Asian culture and love books about authors, this synopsis was especially intriguing. However, the storytelling didn’t keep me as hooked as I would have liked and I gave it a 3 star rating for the reasons listed below.

3 things I liked about the book

  • I enjoyed the depiction of Asian culture and the detailed descriptions of life as a factory worker, complete the with the stresses of social pressure and sexual harassment.
  • I admired the personal descriptions, especially in the way the narrator represented Older Brother as provider and protector, sacrificing for her, but also exhibiting a sensitivity that was unexpected but a very welcome change from the usual portrayal of the brusque Asian man often seen in novels
  • I thought the discussion about how much fact should be included in fiction was well conceived and cleverly executed. The narrative included snippets of conversations and multi-page letters from former acquaintances requesting that the author includes them in her writing, or address the experiences in the real world, which, while it would probably influence her to do so, also showed the dilemma for a fictional writer who is supposed to be creating things, not just drawing from real experiences.

2 things I didn’t like and that I think detracted from the book

  • The decision to keep the personal characters unnamed really underlined the idea of loneliness but it also extended to making me feel separated from the narrator.
  • The short bursts of narrative that jumped from one timeline to another often required a moment to figure out whether we were in the present or past and every time it happened, it took me out of the story.

Click to watch my video review here

Further Reading

The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness was first published in South Korea  in 1995 and translated to English in 2015. I’ve previously read I’ll Be Right There and you can see my full review here. Look out for my upcoming review of The Court Dancer, a historical fictional story about a young Korean entertainer who marries into the French aristocracy and changes her native Korea.

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