The thought that kept returning to me as I read this book was: I don’t really know what I’m reading here, but I know I like it. Reading a few other reviews of Whale online has helped me to see it as a dance through recent Korean history, examining military dictatorship and the rise of capitalism through the stories of a few individuals.
I say ‘stories’ deliberately, because there’s a certain fairytale atmosphere to Cheon Myeong-kwan’s novel, with its hazy passage of time and the just-so tone of its narration (really well evoked in Chi-Young Kim’s translation).
The principal character is Geumbok, a woman from the mountains whose fortunes rise, fall, and rise again, until eventually she builds her own movie theatre in the shape of a whale. Geumbok’s story is intertwined with that of her daughter Chunhui, large and immensely strong, a brilliant brickmaker, unable to speak – except with an elephant whom she befriends.
There is great trauma and violence in Whale, but also moments of humour and touches of magic. This book is a kaleidoscope of interlocking stories, all painted larger than life.
Published by Europa Editions UK.
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