Books

Choi Eunyoung (translated by Sung Ryu)
Shoko’s Smile

There’s a warmth to the short stories in Choi Eunyoung’s celebrated collection, Shoko’s Smile, that I haven’t encountered enough lately. It feels a little unfashionable, and very welcome. Yet her measured prose and granular, almost fastidious study of character and relationships steer the collection away from sentimentality or excess.

Many of the stories are narrated from a distance – a daughter recounting her mother’s story, or a woman recalling her girlhood. The focus is always on relationships, particularly relationships between women that are shaped by both external forces and the complex and sometimes illogical magnetism between individuals.

The title story follows Korean schoolgirl Soyu and Shoko, a Japanese exchange student billeted at her home, through all the secrets, surprises and disappointments of adolescence and early adulthood. “Xin Chào, Xin Chào” examines the end of a close friendship between two families living in Germany, one from Korea and one from Vietnam. “Hanji and Youngju” is the story of a Kenyan veterinarian and Korean geologist who meet while volunteering at a French monastery, and “A Song from Afar” focuses on a young Korean woman whose grief takes her to St Petersburg.

Disillusionment is a recurring theme here. Choi’s first-person narrators are self-conscious about their naivety: “Her twenties had taught her that knowing what was wrong didn’t mean you could change it.” (“Michaela”); “I know now that determination or effort is not necessarily repaid in happiness.” (“Xin Chào, Xin Chào”).

The stories are coloured by idealism, by a belief in natural justice and the power of activism, but it is a muted colour, remembered and outgrown. Choi’s characters find themselves unable to change their realities or right the wrongs in the world. Instead they tell stories; stories and lies.

In a time when brush calligraphy slogans and Instagram tiles reduce relationships between women to either mutual cheerleading or internalised misogyny – think Taylor Swift remixing Madeleine Albright: “... there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women” – it’s refreshing to chew on a collection that is so attentive to interpersonal dynamics beyond these binaries.

Many of Choi’s characters are young Asian women, but that doesn’t mean they understand each other. Choi has an astute feeling for the subtle violations and grievances that can permanently throw a relationship off its axis. Her intricate observations of love, power, guilt, obsession, betrayal, grief and duty illuminate the spaces between people, whatever the setting.

Jinghua Qian

John Murray, 272pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 6, 2021 as "Choi Eunyoung (translated by Sung Ryu), Shoko’s Smile".

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Reviewer: Jinghua Qian