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Whale by Cheon Myeong-Kwan


In a recent interview, the author - Cheon Myeong-Kwan - of the recently short-listed International Booker Prize novel Whale said that he didn’t really know what he wanted to read, so he thought all the things he wanted, and put it in a book for himself. If that isn’t the best inspiration for creating a piece of art, what is?


Myeong-Kwan is not unknown to the world of literary fiction in his home country of South Korea. With six previous books under his belt, he was able to draw on local and international experience in Whale to produce this magnificent piece of writing.


The story is not a simple one, Chunhui - the central character - is a tradie, a female bricklayer with quite the domineering stature. Add to this that she is mute, and you have the basis for an interesting journey through adversity to a point where she is recognised as an artisanal creator of high quality bricks. Add to this Geumbok, Chunhui’s mother, who is obsessed with her old feelings from the water, and seeing a whale. Reading this back, it’s easy to pass it off as a relatively dull narrative, but there is so much to love in this crafted literary genius. Split into three parts, the story unfolds with wonderful construction, giving rise to incredible imagery, realistic dialogue, and thoroughly entertaining wry humour and thoughtfulness.


From a rather cynical attitude, Myeong-Kwan ultimately satarises modernity in Korea - much of which it was easy to think would be lost without contextual knowledge, but surprisingly holds up from a universal perspective - and the sense of freedom that it allows.


Supernatural elements are present in the novel, like so many of the folklore-ish writings. And the descriptions of life in some of the rural elements of South Korea are sublime.


In addition to the world class writing of Myeong-Kwan, acknowledging the translation of Chi-Young Kim is also an important addition. It is a true skill to capture the language of one region and shift it to be relevant to another, Kim manages this seamlessly and the narrative flows as if originally in English.


Perhaps the most poetic, in a novel that rings with lyrical language and style, is the word from the narrator: By its very nature, a story contains adjustments and embellishments depending on the perspective of the person telling it, depending on the listener’s convenience, depending on the storyteller’s skills. Reader, you will believe what you want to believe.


One of the most original and thoroughly entertaining books read this year, highly recommended! Unfortunately it missed out on the international Booker Prize award, but its lingering presence will certainly remain in the mind of whoever reads.


Reviewer: Chris Reed

Europa Editions

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