A dose of Korean reality | Review of ‘Miss Kim Knows’, short stories by Choo Nam-joo, translated by Jamie Chang

The author of ‘Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982’ is back with stories of everyday Korean society as seen through the female lens

Updated - January 12, 2024 01:12 pm IST

Published - January 12, 2024 08:31 am IST

There are several Kims in the stories and they are everyday women, often overlooked, rarely noticed.

There are several Kims in the stories and they are everyday women, often overlooked, rarely noticed. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

When Choo Nam-joo published her novel Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 in 2016, it tapped into that fail-safe formula for successful books — it was so divisive that everybody had to read it. The book tells the story of a young mother, Kim Jiyoung, going through a psychotic breakdown, and though her story, Nam-joo taps into the state of women in contemporary South Korea. 

Every time, Kim Jiyoung faces a life event, the author subtly and masterfully deploys a footnote from a news article, which demonstrates that the protagonist is merely the vessel through which the story of most women in South Korea is told. The book also landed at the right time, when the world was seized by the South Korean zeitgeist, K-Pop groups like BTS and Blackpink were already global names and Korean-dramas were sweeping their way into our TV screens. Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 then pushed the reality of a little known culture into our midst and gave us a glimpse of the real South Korea behind the shiny faces and their shimmying performances on stage and on screen.

Nam-joo expands on this insight into her country in her latest, Miss Kim Knows and Other Stories, translated by Jamie Chang. The book comprises nine stories and in all of them Nam-joo keeps a firm eye on the lives of common South Koreans through the story of a female protagonist. In ‘Dear Hyunnam Appa’, a young woman begins to realise the amount of control her fiancé is exerting on her life. Written as a break-up letter, it’s like watching a time-lapse video of a love story: the first meeting, the heady rush of a new romance, and then slowly, in subtle forms, emerges a complicated man seeped in the misogyny of the culture. Even though it is established early on that the writer is ending the relationship, Nam-joo manages to keep the tension in the narration. 

Resentment against society

In ‘Runaway’, a father goes missing and the mystery of his absence brings the family together. The narrator, the only daughter, has a link to the father’s whereabouts through a credit card she’s given him, and it is up to her to decide whether to go searching for the father or simply respect his decision to choose a new life for himself. In ‘Dead Set’, a newly successful author reconnects with an old teacher and is forced to confront the question of who owns a story.

There are several Kims in the stories and they are travel operators, teachers, sisters, mothers — everyday women, often overlooked, rarely noticed. While the stories don’t drip with the frustrated rage that made Kim Jiyoung such a successful book, you can still sense the resentment the women feel against society’s constraints. They are all in a struggle to centre themselves in a world that demands too much of them. 

However, the writing is not even, perhaps the translation is inconsistent, and readers who loved Kim Jiyoung might find this a difficult, even unsatisfactory, read. But for people who are interested in the culture and lifestyle of South Korea, the book provides a wide-angle view. Behind the attractive men in perfectly tailored jackets and glowing, slim women with not a hair out of place on our screens, lies a real society, warts and all. And Nam-joo is not afraid to be its unblinking narrator.

Miss Kim Knows and Other Stories
Cho Nam-joo, trs Jamie Chang
Simon & Schuster

The reviewer is the author of Independence Day: A People’s History.

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