What is true beauty and how can human beings express that true beauty? Ch’oe Yun’s mesmerizing narrative places this ageless question at the heart of the novel through the character Yi Jina, otherwise known as “Jini,” a bewitchingly beautiful advertising model. Jini has modeled since infancy, laboring as the sole breadwinner of her impoverished, dysfunctional family until one day she decides to leave home. Her unexpected departure forms a gaping hole in the lives of each member of her family, but at the same time this vacuum also propels each of them, including Jini, toward a kind of liberation that allows them to discover, understand, and express true beauty even in the midst of realizing what’s most repugnant within the self while having to live in the ugliness of the world. Thus, Ch’oe Yun’s novel turns the apparently prosaic question concerning true beauty into a penetrating meditation on our capacity to strive toward expressing the impossible.
Resembling William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, there are multiple narrators with each chapter being narrated by one of the characters through their own point of view, except Jini and her mother Agar-Agar, whose point of view remains in the third person. Each chapter, then, presents the characters’ journey to understanding their human weakness in relation to others but especially in relation to Jini.
Shark is the explosive and violent older brother who works as Jini’s manager. His job is to incessantly negotiate a higher price for Jini’s body parts. He craves solitude and dreams only of living on an uninhabited island all the while enmeshed in the capitalist system of exploitation and human degradation.
Agar-Agar is Jini’s mother. She is too scared to act although she witnesses her son’s increasingly abusive behavior, including the near strangulation of Jini as a child. Out of a sense of guilt and incompetence, she resorts to hiking and worshiping the mountain spirit for solace and answers.
Starfish, although just as beautiful as Jini, has lived in Jini’s shadow all her life. She, in fact, acts as Jini’s surrogate mother and feels abandoned and overlooked by her own parents. Starfish has complicated emotions for her sister that range from extreme hate to love.
Conch is Jini’s agent who has lived in her house as an honorary member of the family since “discovering” the enchanting Jini as a child. She intimatel...