In 2012, with her novel “Please Look After Mom,” Kyung-sook Shin became the first South Korean and the first woman ever to win the Man Asian Literary Prize. But her illustrious career began with the publication of her debut novella, “Winter Fable,” in 1985, and over the past 35 years, she has become one of the most widely read and acclaimed writers in South Korea.
Thanks to the astute translation of Anton Hur and the independent publisher The Feminist Press, English-speaking audiences now have the opportunity to read Shin’s shattering and salient novel “Violets,” originally published in Korean in 2001. In this slim and melancholy slow-burner of a book, Shin tells the story of San, a shy and solitary 22-year-old woman who stumbles into a job at a flower shop in 1990s-era Seoul.
Narrated in the present tense, the book has a dreamlike immediacy, especially in the opening chapter, “Where the Minari Grows,” which illustrates San’s abject girlhood in the countryside in the 1970s. Born to a beautiful mother who possesses “a poignant, tragic quality, shared by all women whose face, neck, waist and legs seem to flow in an unbroken line” and a rebellious father who abandons his family out of disappointment with the gender of his child, San grows up friendless save for Namae, a fellow pariah because of her own dead mother and drunken dad.
“The fact that they each have something to be ashamed of makes the two draw closer,” Shin writes. “They are two stragglers from the herd.”
But their friendship implodes under even more shame after the girls share an innocent moment of queer attraction, causing Namae to cut off her only friend. When we meet San again after her move to the big city, her solitude has become excruciating. As she goes to eat an unsatisfying meal in her tiny apartment, “she pulls up a legless chair, places it across from her, and adds a straw hat hanging on the wall” because “having the straw hat there makes her think she’s sitting with someone.”
The summer unfolds and San, a true outsider, struggles to find her place in a society that marginalizes people like her as a matter of course. She encounters a cast of indelible characters, including the shop owner, her winsome and assertive co-worker Su-ae — who becomes her roommate, eats mint chocolate chip ice cream for breakfast and is not afraid to confront their pushy landlady — and the womanizing photographer who whips “her empty heart into a certain frenzy” with a careless and insincere expression of love.
In scenes saturated with feeling, Shin depicts a milieu bristling with classism and misogyny, dramatizing the desires and dreams of a protagonist who, in her own defenseless way, strives for both independence and connection. Shin writes in her afterword that “Violets are very small plants. So small they’re easily overlooked as weeds,” but the care she gives to her telling of San’s story argues that even the most vulnerable are worthy of respect.