A Meta-Fictive Haunting: The Impossible Fairy Tale by Han Yujoo
- onMarch 28, 2017
- Vol.35 Spring 2017
- byArifa Akbar
- 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.
The Child develops a dangerous fascination with Mia, which leads to a chilling act. The Child’s inner world has an edge of hallucination—her disturbing fantasies pepper the realism so that we are not always certain of what is real or imagined. In this, it is reminiscent of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian as well as in its themes of abuse, resistance, and its insinuation of explosive violence just beneath the surface. Like Han Kang’s novel, Han Yujoo weaves her interrogation of the creative process into the story she tells.
The girls’ story stops, just after a crime has been committed and the second half of the book takes a sharp turn, embarking on a meta-narrative that sees the return of the Child but on different terms. It is fifteen years on and she is haunting her writer-creator: a Frankenstein’s monster, of sorts.
Mary Shelley’s preoccupations with creative inspiration are echoed within this latter section with explorations of the moral responsibility of creativity. The narrator is now the fictive writer who seems to be filled with guilt for the crime of the novel’s earlier half: “From the very beginning, Mia’s death was planned—it’s there in my notes. I followed that plot and murdered Mia step by step, meticulously, logically.”
The darker recesses of subjectivity are reflected in language, which stutters in disturbing repetitions of words and images to evoke psychological and emotional breakdown. Some sections are hard to penetrate but the writing keeps us gripped, even when meaning is opaque.
Through the bifurcated narrative structure, the reader is first swept into the story of the Child of the first half and then shown its mechanics through the puncture in the fictive bubble of the second half. The parts together tell a story-within-a-story and also examine the nature of storytelling itself. If it sounds postmodern, it is. What saves the novel from mere game-playing trickiness is the emotional depth. We feel the Child’s pain and her boiling injustice at the world for ignoring her abuse. Her final, terrible act implicates not just her classmates or the teacher who is so blind to her pain but society at large.
A brutal child’s world is vividly evoked with subtle sociopolitical resonance so that the reader feels whatever heinous acts take place between the children are a reflection of a larger evil lurking in miniature, and not intrinsic badness within the children.
The child-monster is also the child-victim, something we have known from the start. Han Yujoo shows that the two not only exist side by side but that the monster is born out of the experience of desperate suffering, neglect, and abuse.
by Arifa Akbar
Deputy Editor, Wasafiri
Han Yujoo debuted in 2003 by winning the Literature and Society’s New Writers Award for the short story “To the Moon.” She won the Hankook Ilbo Literary Award in 2009. She has authored the short story collections To the Moon, Book of Ice, and My Left Hand the King and My Right Hand the King’s Scribe, and the novel The Impossible Fairy Tale, which has been translated into English and French. She is also a noted translator, whose works include translations of Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table, and Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful and The Ongoing Moment, among others, into Korean. She is an active member of an experimental group called Rue and also runs Oulipopress, an independent publisher.