Who Murdered My Wife?: Ashes and Red by Pyun Hye-Young

  • onOctober 20, 2014
  • Vol.8 Summer 2010
  • byYi Soo-hyung
Ashes and Red

“There are always plenty of warning signs of danger, but when danger does befall, it always comes out of nowhere.” This epigram-like sentence opens Pyun Hye-young’s Ashes and Red, a novel on pandemics and the widespread hysteria they inspire. The protagonist is a researcher at a pharmaceutical company whose ordinary life is thrown off track when he is sent to work in country C. At the airport he is detained for a day as a suspected case of the pandemic that is sweeping the country, but after his release he becomes stranded because he has lost his mobile phone. He finally finds a place to stay, only to be quarantined because another guest has been confirmed to have the disease. All this is bad enough, but not so much as to be unbearable. However, when he learns that his wife has been brutally murdered the day before he left for country C and that he is now a prime suspect, his first instinct is to run.

Penniless in a strange country, he takes to sleeping on the streets until he is driven into the sewers to live a ghost-like life. Just like the opening epigram says, danger comes out of nowhere and drags him down. Not all is lost, however, for luck is also equally fickle. He manages to escape the sewers and find work at a pharmaceutical company, where he slowly makes the transition back to everyday life. In some ways the protagonist’s experiences in country C are not so far removed from our own. All of us panic at the outbreak of a pandemic, but after some time we go back to our daily lives: “News of the spread of infection, the mounting death count, and the shortage of vaccines did nothing to the immune system of everyday life. People still went to work, to school, to sell their wares.” As dictated by the indefatigable norms of daily life, the protagonist also goes to work as usual.

Well then, is that all? The problem, however, turns out to be not the monster of the pandemic but the monster within. Much as he may wish to deny it, which is why he ran away, he killed his wife, he killed on the streets, and he killed a woman. Yet his life has not been touched a bit. A monster outside is one thing, but what does one do about one’s monster within? 

Author's Profile

Pyun Hye-Young completed her BA in creative writing and MA in Korean literature from Hanyang University. Her novel The Hole was the winner of the 2017 Shirley Jackson Award, and City of Ash and Red was an NPR Great Read. Her works in English include Evening Proposal (Dalkey Archive, 2016), The Hole (Arcade Publishing, 2017), City of Ash and Red (Arcade Publishing, 2018), and The Law of Lines (Arcade Publishing, 2020). Her short stories have been published in the New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and Words Without Borders. She currently teaches creative writing at Myongji University.