- The Hole
Tr. Sora Kim-Russell 2017208pp.
Pyun Hye Young’s novel The Hole is a claustrophobic, riveting story calculated to get under your skin. Its opening chapter unfurls with disarming and cinematic swiftness. A man named Oghi wakes from a coma and experiences the disorientation giving way to horror that one would expect to feel upon realizing the body has become a prison—and has been all along. Locked in near-total paralysis, in which blinking is now an act worthy of praise, Oghi becomes acutely aware of the smells, sounds, and functions of the bodies that occupy his newly constricted world. Of a nurse, he notices, “It wasn’t a nice smell. Sharp. Like she’d just finished eating.” Later, the familiar smell of Oghi’s wife closes in on him, despite the fact that she’s been killed in the same car crash that put him in the hospital. It is one of the arresting, never-quite-explained moments in a novel that gradually walls in the reader with haunting ambiguities.
The story alternates between Oghi’s flashbacks that dwell on the pressure points of his forty-seven years and his present struggles to navigate lying vulnerable to the whims of able-bodied people he disdains but relies on for survival. These include Oghi’s mother-in-law, now his closest thing to kin. An attractive, demure widow, her poise cracks under the weight of her grief at losing her only child and attending to the man who crashed the car, and who she bitterly admits is also the only family she has left.
A bestseller in South Korea, where it was published last year, The Hole occupies multiple in-between spaces, like a disturbing itch that can’t be scratched. Information about the fatal car crash and what drove Oghi’s wife to become fixated on her garden emerges in tantalizing bits, pointing toward the ultimate resolution of these puzzles. Yet as the narrative expands in several directions, it threatens to leave readers with the lingering, hollow feeling of an unsolved mystery, a gaping hole if you will. The jacket copy for Pyun’s second novel to be translated into English, in the sure hands of Sora Kim-Russell, describes it as a “gripping psychological thriller.” Yet the book goes less for the shocking violence of Stephen King’s Misery, to which it will draw comparisons, and resides more in a mode of suspense held taut by the threat of abuse.