- The Impossible Fairy Tale
Tr. Janet Hong 2017192pp.
Some of the best horror stories have placed tormented, and tormenting, children at their heart, from Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw to Stephen King’s Carrie. While Han Yujoo’s spare, spellbinding first novel is not a classic tale of demon possession, Han interrogates the innocence of childhood, deconstructing the child-monster by implicating the rest of society in the book’s central, murderous act.
Han has won awards for three previous short story collections and this debut novel confirms her reputation as a bold young author at the vanguard of a new wave of Korean fiction. Its linguistic experimentalism, dream-like sequences and deliberate scrambling of meanings can leave us dizzy at times, but the weirdness of Han’s fictive world is ultimately dazzling. When the writing is not chilling or mystifying, it is beautiful—even breathtaking—at times.
The first part of the novel rests on a third-person narrative, chronological and clear in its storytelling although the incantatory tone gives it a hypnotic quality. It features a classroom of school children who play brutal games and focuses on two girls within it; one is Mia, “who more or less has everything, who was always told she could have anything she wanted.” The other is only ever referred to as “the Child” and is from a profoundly abusive household. The Child remains so invisible at school, and by implication, in society, that the violence she suffers at home goes unnoticed even when it is written on her face or her movements: “To her, a blow to the head is nothing. But no one notices the Child’s confusion.”
The interaction between the girls, told from the point of view of the Child, gives this section its knife-edge tension and a terrible sense of building menace. The Child is a horrifying and mesmerizing creation, both in her disturbing thoughts and the abuse she endures so silently: “The Child’s eyes reflect nothing, reveal nothing.”
Mia and the Child are more alike than it first appears. Mia is clean, pretty, and spoiled, always getting the treats she wants but her mother is largely absent, just like the Child’s. Both teeter on the cusp of adolescence and this latter stage of childhood is depicted in all its vulnerability and bewilderment. Through these psychological portraits, Han undermines the pink, fluffy commercialized version of teen culture that K-pop is made of.