Review Content Warning: N/A
Book Content Warning: murder, sexual assault, vehicular manslaughter, accidental death
“And what had been my dreams you ask? I was so tired I didn’t even have time to dream.”—Seong-nan Ha, “A Quiet Night”
A mother who can’t remember the face of her child, an increasingly strange taxi ride, and a girl caught by a fishhook in the river. From the author of Flowers of Mold comes another translated collection of strange and tragic stories.
In Bluebeard’s First Wife, Ha explores big cities and small rural towns where ambition, familial responsibilities, and expectations of marriage coalesce to reveal hidden sides to neighbors, wives, and husbands. The ordinary lives of middle class peoples in such cities and towns gain fairy-tale quality as Janet Hong’s translation renders Ha’s uneasy stories with haunting details and precise prose.
The stories are deeply South Korean with the natural inclusion of Korean words and traditions. Although prior knowledge of Korean culture isn’t required, it makes the stories richer to know that there are different dialects between Seoul and Pusan, and to know first-hand the pressures to marry within Korean culture.
Many of the stories in the collection such as “The Star-Shaped Stain” and “On that Green, Green Grass” involve heterosexual married couples who strain under the roles of the good housewife and breadwinning husband. The wives struggle to balance housework with work or childcare, sometimes both, as the husbands reveal unnerving behaviors and pasts.
The characters are sympathetic in the awkward ways they adjust to new environments and the problems that come to them. Throughout the 11 stories in the collection, we see how Ha’s characters are dreamers who fantasize about different partners, lives, and futures. Their yearning for something beyond their mundane lives is entirely relatable, even if their circumstances aren’t.
However, those who don’t quite understand the weighty societal expectations and pressures of the nuclear family may find themselves unsympathetic to Ha’s characters, wondering why the characters don’t just choose to leave or act differently. But it’s that exact frustration which has been ironed out from Ha’s characters that is unsettling.
As Ha splays open her characters’ desires and regrets, the stories offer a refracted look at our own worries, glimpses into worlds where we make all the wrong choices and there is no escape from the consequences. None of the protagonists end up content with their lives, even if they somehow resolve the dilemmas that appear. Instead, they’re left with choices, regrets, and uncertainties that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.
At times, the stories take on slightly too much by building out their characters with every strange, small detail to the point that the central story gets lost. Although it results in richer characters, some stories feel uncertain in what exactly they are trying to say. Still, no matter how much we meander off the path, Ha makes sure that we return to the evocative images and sensations that we’re first introduced to, those which capture the essence of the stories whether it’s a kite flying in the sky or a princess tree wardrobe. If you’re looking for unsettling stories about South Korean daily life with even uneasier endings, look no further than Bluebeard’s First Wife.
Ha Seong-nan is the author of five short story collections—including Bluebeard’s First Wife and Flowers of Mold—and three novels. Over her career, she’s received a number of prestigious awards, such as the Dong-in Literary Award in 1999, Hankook Ilbo Literary Prize in 2000, the Isu Literature Prize in 2004, the Oh Yeong-su Literary Award in 2008, and the Contemporary Literature (Hyundae Munhak) Award in 2009.
Janet Hong is a writer and translator based in Vancouver, Canada. Her work has appeared in Literary Hub, Asia Literary Review, Words Without Borders, and the Korea Times. Her other translations include Han Yujoo’s The Impossible Fairy Tale and Ancco’s Bad Friends.
Bluebeard’s First Wife can be purchased here.