Monday, April 18, 2011

Chinatown by Oh Jung-hee

From the book description of Oh Jung-hee's Chinatown:

Oh Jung Hee deserves major credit for the success of women fiction writers in Korea today. Since her debut in 1968, she has produced a body of short fiction that renders in unsparing detail the effects of a rapidly modernizing society on family life. Her command of language, facility with dialogue, and use of stream-of-consciousness narrative have yielded some of the most memorable stories in modern Korean literature, and her works in translation have earned her comparisons with such accomplished writers as England's Virginia Woolf, America's Joyce Carol Oates, and Canada's Alice Munro. The stories included here represent her work from three decades. "Chinatown" is a coming-of-age story set in the port city of Incheon. 

"Wayfarer" is a poignant account of a woman betrayed by her family and society. "The Release" portrays a mother and daughter united by tragedy.

This is a slim volume published as part of Jipmoondang Publishing's Portable Library of Korean Literature (the books are still selling for 5,000 won -- around a $5 -- a bargain). Each book that I've read in this series is worth reading, and some titles, such as those by Oh, Yun Heun-gil ["장마,", "The Rainy Season"] and Chae Yoon ["의색 눈 사람", "The Grey Snowman"], are particular favourites.

The Oh collection is noteworthy on another level: the comparison with Munro is unsurprising -- one hears the phrase "one of the world's best short story writers" applied to Munro so often that it has taken on the quality of a received idea. Oh, by contrast, remains relatively unknown. But who is in fact the better writer? Oh, like many Koreans from the mid-20th Century, is capable of evoking a depth of feeling I have not experienced from the work of many writers. Is she perhaps underrated? 

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