Review of Untold Night and Day by Bae Suah

ISBN 1419744380 (ISBN13: 9781419744389)

What starts as a quiet tale of a struggling middle class youth in Korea becomes a disorienting and surreal fable of identity, love, and art.

At the intersection of Murakami and Kafka, Bae Suah occupies her own corner of contemporary literature. At times as light and charming as Banana Yoshimoto or Hiromi Kawakami, she also possesses highly literary powers comparable to Marquez. It is impossible to pin down exactly how she manages to convey rich detail, elegant economy, vivid characterization, and dream-like magic all at once.

Several recurrent images pervade the novel, which is organized like a piece of music. The refrains remind us of certain memories, but they also establish specific symbols. The effect of these interesting moments shed light on the passage of time in the world of the novel. It is clever in the extreme how Suah manages to weave together disparate occurrences in intriguing ways – whether it is an encounter in a theater or a magical bus ride through downtown, each wave of surrealism serves to construct a heartfelt nuance of youthful regret, love-lorn solitude, or the existential dilemma of a dreaming poet. Temperature crops up frequently in the book, enhancing the characters’ skewed perspective with irony, hyperbole, and sympathy.

Bae Suah has said in interviews, that she did not choose Korea, as one does not choose one’s name, but it is hers all the same. This uncertain commitment to national identity may be seen in some of her works dealing with outsiders, foreigners, and dispossessed Koreans. Here she describes South Korea as an island, surrounded on 3 sides by water, and on the fourth by an uncrossable border.

Transportation is another underlying theme of the novel – trains, planes, taxis and buses. A fair portion of the action takes place while the characters are standing still, but movement continues in their interactions, as they often recount journeys and far-removed events. I got the impression that the interstices of life, the introspective moments, intruded in unexpected ways, to punctuate the impressionistic qualities the author was going for. If you are not familiar with her style, the aimlessness or “random” aspect may trick you into believing this masterful novel is sloppy. In fact, it is a honed, enchanting, mesmeric experience, a dream of life, wherein emotion and memory collide.

I’m astounded by what this author has managed to do in the 4 books of hers I’ve read. The last one in English is called Recitation, and I will not be able to resist reading it for long.

Thanks go to the publisher who provided an ARC through Netgalley.

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