Discussion · review · Review Copy

The Impossible Fairy Tale by Han Yujoo, 한유주, Janet Hong (Translator)

Impossible

Paperback, 214 pages
Published March 7th 2017 by Graywolf Press
Source: Raincoast Books

This was a strange strange book. But first, the official synopsis:

The Impossible Fairy Tale is the story of two unexceptional grade-school girls. Mia is “lucky”―she is spoiled by her mother and, as she explains, her two fathers. She gloats over her exotic imported color pencils and won’t be denied a coveted sweater. Then there is the Child who, by contrast, is neither lucky nor unlucky. She makes so little impression that she seems not even to merit a name.

At school, their fellow students, whether lucky or luckless or unlucky, seem consumed by an almost murderous rage. Adults are nearly invisible, and the society the children create on their own is marked by cruelty and soul-crushing hierarchies. Then, one day, the Child sneaks into the classroom after hours and adds ominous sentences to her classmates’ notebooks. This sinister but initially inconsequential act unlocks a series of events that end in horrible violence.

But that is not the end of this eerie, unpredictable novel. A teacher, who is also this book’s author, wakes from an intense dream. When she arrives at her next class, she recognizes a student: the Child, who knows about the events of the novel’s first half, which took place years earlier. Han Yujoo’s The Impossible Fairy Tale is a fresh and terrifying exploration of the ethics of art making and of the stinging consequences of neglect.

To talk about this book with any clarity, I’m going to have to give some inevitable spoilers. I will try to avoid them if I can but I might find that I simply cannot evaluate the book without mentioning them. But we’ll see.

You should also note that it’s 3 am and I am fasting just in case this effects the tone and content of my review.

I can read and understand Korean (mostly with the help of a dictionary) so before anything else, I will say that the writing style in translation drove me absolutely nuts. I was very annoyed by the fragmentary narrative which worked in parts but got old pretty quickly because you cannot sustain the style for an entire novel–in English. I reckon that the book in its original language is wildly poetic, the repetitions make beautiful use of the Korean language and the effect is lyrical. In English, this style is, I’m sorry to say, nothing less than annoying.

Still, the style creates remarkable atmosphere and works wonderfully with the sections detailing the lives of the children and in particular the brutally sad life of the unnamed Child. However, as a writer, I cannot help but speculate how different the book would have been (in English) had the author utilized different styles in each of the two parts of the novel. The difference in the narrative styles would have delineated the adult character from the Child and given the book a more solid feel. But that’s just me as a writer.

The story itself is a bit like On a Winter’s Night, A Traveler by Italo Calvino in the way it is somewhat metaphysical in that the story is aware of itself as being a story, as being fictional. And I feel the style in the second part drowns out this important fact which would otherwise have been fascinating.

As it is, there is an  unsettling ambiguity about the Child whose name we never do find out and the adult narrator. I can’t say anymore because to do so would be giving away the story and I think the book is crunchy enough, for all its flaws, to be worthy of a reading. The Impossible Fairy Tale is eerie and reminiscent of a horror movie except a lot more intellectual in the way it approaches its story.

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