A teenage girl is working on a factory line, assembling stereos in Seoul during the industrial boom of the 1970s. She's lied about her age to get the job; she's being pressured to leave the workers' union so management will keep paying for her to attend high school at night, since her family can't afford it, and her wages wouldn't support it. Her cousin and brother depend on her help in the cramped room they share.
She has a life on either side of this moment (a nearly idyllic childhood in the country on one side, and a future as a novelist on the other). But standing at that conveyor belt in her assigned position and under an assumed name, placing screws over and over, she describes herself as though she doesn't exist: "As Cousin and I turn into skilled workers, our names disappear ... When someone calls me this, I do not realize it's me they're talking to and fail to respond." It's more than the industrial grind; she's an absence of certainty in uncertain times, the kind of camouflage it takes a lifetime to shake. Years later, she begins to write a book to pin down those not-quite-lost years: The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness.
Kyung-sook Shin's work often inhabits the space between story and reality. The narrator of this novel is a fictionalized version of herself whose verisimilitude is as nebulous as her courage. Though the autobiographical novel is a well-worn genre, Shin (translated from the Korean by Ha-yun Jung) handles it with the sort of effortless ruthlessness a story like this requires, without letting either the narrator or the reader rest easy about the line between truth and fiction. It's no wonder that despite being grounded in signposts of the everyday, The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness has the tenor of a ghost story.
Shin won the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2012 for Please Look After Mom, which frames the search for a family's missing matriarch through the family left behind, and shares some stylistic markers with The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness (originally published in Korea in 1995) in its mixture of the dreamlike and the sharply immediate. Sliding back and forth in time — often dragged unwillingly from the present — Shin anchors her narrator in vivid details rather than narrative absolutes. As union tensions unfold on the warehouse floor, and the adult author is startled by the phantom reappearance of old school friends, the book circles around something unsaid that feels at first like it must be a disruptive trauma, some decisive blow that altered everything.
But time is both subtler and crueler than that, and Shin makes the claustrophobia of circumstance as decisive as any political upheaval. Our younger avatar is such a mystery to herself that she can't articulate her feelingsabout the complex relationships around her: the cousin who shares her factory work but not her ambitions, the older brother who's become a slightly resentful de factopatriarch, the mother whose occasional presence is both comforting and overwhelming. Instead she describes, again and again, the confines of the single room they share in an industrial housing project until the walls seem to close in and those details take on the portent of an omen. Every day she comes home and begins to heat water for rice beside Oldest Brother's drying socks; you begin to worry that something might be missing from the frame. And when things do begin to shift, we hold our breath.
Shin's portrait of a life lived on the edge of poverty and social uncertainty is as quietly smothering as a snowfall; her narrator drifts from glancing descriptions to monologues about the nature of truth, and from awkward conversation into ellipses of silence. Hayun Jung's translation juxtaposes the dreamlike ambivalence of our adult novelist against the spare, evocative prose of her youth; it builds one detail over another without ever fully satisfying. The unsaid hovers at the edge of the images in The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness; it's a haunting, remarkable novel that wisely asks more questions than it answers.
Genevieve Valentine is the author of The Girls at the Kingfisher Club.