Praised for her meticulous descriptions and ability to transform the mundanity of everyday life into something strange and unexpected, Ha Seong-nan bursts into the English literary scene with this stunning collection that confirms Korea's place at the forefront of contemporary women's writing. From the title story told by a woman suffering from gaps in her memory, to one about a man seeking insight in bags of garbage, to a surreal story about a car salesman and the customer he tries to seduce, The Woman Next Door charms and provokes with an incomparable style.
I have expressed my fears that I am losing my mind on this site. Well I think it happened. If anybody manages to find my mind please let me know -- I would be interested in getting it back. I read this book about 10 month ago and as you can see from the NOVEMBER 2020 review down below I was railing against it (I gave it 1 star). But after reading it this week, with no recollection of having read it before, I didn't mind the urine and vomit although I made note of it in my review. I will append my new review at the beginning here. I will also give my new ratings in brackets below. I'm so embarassed.
SEPTEMBER 2021 REVIEW These were some interesting stories. Although the majority of them all had people vomiting or there was the smell of urine or vomit or people’s decaying teeth or rotten garbage… 😯 Once I thought I was over reading about the smell of urine when I finished a story, I encountered it again, and again , and again in subsequent stories. 😯 😐
I guess I am not necessarily selling people on wanting to read this collection of short stories. 😬
But don’t blame me. Even Susan Choi, fiction writer, has this to say on a blurb on the back cover: ‘These mesmerizing stories of disconnection and detritus unfurl with the surreal, illogic of dreams.’
All in all, the stories were good. Even the stories I did not understand I tended to like. Maybe some of the stories didn’t have to have a point, I don’t know. Just a slice of life in South Korea in the last decade of the 20th century. The stories were published in South Korea in 1999 and were translated into English and published in 2019 by OPEN LETTER, a publishing entity from the University of Rochester that publishes translated works. My average rating of stories was 3.25 so I will give it 3 strong stars. The stories are ~20 pages in length.
But actually now that I think about it, I gave 7 of the 10 stars 3.5 stars or more so if you round that up it would be 4. 🧐 If Seong-Nan publishes another book that’s translated into English I think I would get it…so 4 stars for me overall. Ha! 😊 😇 🙂 🙃
NOVEMBER 2020 REVIEW I rarely give a book 1 star anymore because if it is that bad, then I have no business reading it. However, this past week I already did a DNF on a book, and felt bad that I would be doing it again, and so I gutted it out. I see no redeeming qualities of this book, whatsoever, IMHO. 😑
There were 10 stories in this collection (Korean Literature Series), and all were more or less 20 pages. All studies involved one or more people vomiting or having to clean up vomit. So — we all vomit and that is part of life, but did every study in this collection have to include this gross-out behavior?
Some of the stories involved rear-view mirrors, outside advertisement highway signs extoling tropical islands, a security guard, leaking garbage bags emitting a putrid smell, and the smell of urine. I did not know if this counted for a “recurring theme” or if these were supposed to be indicative of inter-connected stories…if so, the author failed in this endeavor. I didn’t know what the hell she was trying to say in these stories.
Following are my ratings with some comments I made to myself while reading. • Waxen Wings — 2 stars [3.5 stars] • Nightmare — 2 stars [3.5 stars] Girl imagines she gets raped by a fruit picker. If these stories don’t get any better I quit! [3.5 stars] • The Retreat — 1.5 stars [3.5 stars] o A man who is going to sell a building with a lot of businesses. One of his tenants says he is nothing like his father and is a loser and he roughs him up and he falls and dies. The rest of the story…nothing really happens. Story sucks. • The Woman Next Door — 2 stars [4.5 stars] • Flag — 1.5 stars [2 stars, I still disliked it!] o A former car salesman is now an electric lines man (fixing transformers on poles or whatever they are called). He lost his job selling cars because he went through a plate glass window with a car because he cleaned the window so well you couldn’t see the glass. • Your Rearview Mirror — 1.5 stars [3.5 stars] o I don’t know why I’m reading this crap. • Flowers of Mold — 2 stars [2.5 stars] o Some man ‘steals’ garbage from other people so he can find a woman he’s attracted to (I guess). He can learn a lot from people’s garbage. • Toothpaste — 1 star [2.5 stars] • Early Beans — 1 star [3.5 stars] o Another story starting with “A foul stench from the dumpsters” • Onion — 1 star [3.5 stars] o I’m po’ed I had to read this crap. “The bathroom entrance is splattered with vomit.” Every story has vomit!!! More vomit, this time from kids. A woman accidentally smothers a baby to death!!! Jesus!
Flowers of Mold is a collection of 10 stories, each around 20 pages, translated by Janet Hong (also translator of The Impossible Fairytale) from the Korean original of 하성란 (Ha Seong-nan).
하성란 was born in 1967, and made her publishing debut in 1996 with her short story "Grass" (not in this collection).
This collection was published in 1999 and entitled 옆집 여자, The Woman Next Door, after the first story (4th in the English edition). In the same year she won the prestigious Dong-in Literary Award with the story Flowers of Mold, the 7th in this collection, and used for the English title.
It is a very strong collection, beautifully crafted stories of everyday life, often remarkable in their banality, and yet of characters on the edge, with something deeply disturbing lurking underneath, of lives about to fracture. On the Todorov spectrum of uncanny-fantastic-marvellous, this is firmly at the uncanny end. There is nothing supernatural here, or at least nothing that may not simply have been imagined or dreamt, but there is something strongly unsettling.
The first story in the English collection, 촛농 날개 / Waken Wings, with a clear nod to Icarus is an excellent start, although perhaps slightly atypical in its slightly fey tone, but with a bitter taste at the end.
Narrated in the second person, it starts with a young schoolgirl, much smaller than her peers, who suddenly discovers, while leaping off a swing, the pleasure of 'hang time' - that brief moment when one hang suspended, and appears to be flying, as well as her own skill. She fantasises about being able to fly:
When you enter middle school, you push aside thoughts of flying; you’re too old to play on the swings, and you’re no longer naïve enough to confess your desire to fly. You learn more about this gravity that keeps pulling you down.
Later she becomes a gymnast, and then a hangglider, in her attempts to defy gravity, before the inevitable fall.
The original title story 옆집 여자 / The Woman Next Door is more typical. It opens with a housewife talking to her tumbledryer which she has given her own name.
A new neighbor’s moved into number 507. I’d just taken out the laundry and was about to hang it on the clothesline. The washer is junk now. Whenever it goes from rinse to spin, it gives a terrible groan and shudders, as if it might explode any second. Over the years, it’s shifted about twenty centimeters from its original spot. Since it’s done nothing except wash, rinse, and spin for ten years, no wonder it’s in bad shape. ... I pat the top of the washer and mutter, “Yeongmi, I know you’re tired, but let’s get through it one last time.” The washer wrings out the water and barely sounds its end-of-cycle buzzer. Yeongmi is the name I’ve given the washer. It’s also my name.
When she meets the new neighbour, a younger woman Myeonghui, Yeongmi is intrigued and delighted by the rather formal greeting: "Jal butak deuleo yo" (잘 부탁 드려요) - I entrust myself to your care. (Hong romanizes the Korean to make it clear this is a particular phrase).
Myeonghui begins by borrowing a cheap plastic spatula. When she returns a few days later to borrow it again Yeongmi can't find it, and has no recollection of it being returned, but Myeonghui buys her another:
Above the stove hangs a spatula. The same one hangs above Myeonghui’s stove. I’ve named mine Myeonghui. I touch the spatula – the symbol of our friendship.
But as the story continues, Myeonghui's borrowings spirals and the gaps in Yeongmi's memories grow. Typically of the stories in the collection, there is no neat resolution - the reader is left wondering if Myeonghui is gaslighting Yeongmi to steal her life, or if the latter is having a breakdown fueled by irrational jealousy.
A particular favourite of mine, as it has strong personal resonance, was the blackly comic 즐거운 소풍 / The Retreat. The owner of a small commercial building is preparing for an annual retreat with his tenants - the proprietors of a small fried chicken shop, karaoke room, billiards hall, taekwando school, skewer shop and a 학원 (study school), The Academy of Mental Calculation. But the owner has plans to tear down the building and build an officetell block, which his tenants has discovered. He plots their demise and they plot his.
The complete list of 10 stories - with their Korean original titles and order, and the English equivalents are:
1. 옆집 여자 4. The Woman Next Door 2. 깃발 5. Flag 3. 악몽 2 Nightmare 4. 즐거운 소풍 3. The Retreat 5. 촛농 날개 1. Waken Wings 6. 당신의 백미러 6. Your Rearview Mirror 7. 곰팡이꽃 7. Flowers of Mold 8. 치약 8. Toothpaste 9. 올콩 9. Beans 10. 양파 10. Onion
A book of short stories that is written in a simple and straightforward manner. The characters are everyday and are immersed in the modernity of city life. The stories are deceptively undemanding on the reader until the surreal and the strange enter the milieu. Each story proves to be thought-provoking, causing the reader to take pause to put the stories into new perspectives. Pensive and entertaining, this book will titillate the contemplative and imaginative reader.
▪️FLOWERS OF MOLD by Ha Seong-nan, tr. Janet Hong, 2019
🥀 FLOWERS collects 10 short stories, originally published in Korean in 1999. The Korean original featured the title of another story in the collection, "The Woman Next Door", which was actually my favorite story in the book. However, I'm glad about the editorial decision to call this one FLOWERS OF MOLD in English - a more evocative title & appropriately captures the "spirit" of the book.
The stories are unsettling with a sinister undercurrent. A few of the stories have a thread of connection - not related necessarily, but perhaps occuring in the same timeline, so to speak.
"The Woman Next Door" features a protagonist who is experiencing gaps in her memory... Her new neighbor keeps dropping by to borrow items and then not returning them... And suddenly, her entire life is not "on loan" to this woman next door.
The stories called to mind some Argentine corollaries - women who play with this same darkness, notably Silvina Ocampo & Samanta Schweblin.
As usual in collections, some stories are wow, while others don't leave a mark. Of the 10 stories, I think I'll remember 3 or 4.
Flowers of Mold was originally published in 1999 and is only now making its English-language debut. It is a story collection with pieces that are mostly realistic but also deeply unsettling and strange. Many of them are about life in and around cities; they document people’s experiences in apartment buildings, parks, and workplaces. They are about life on crowded buses and in office complexes. Advertising messages on billboards feature prominently. The characters are trying their best to get by and are deeply sympathetic, but they often face obstacles they do not know how to confront. The stories are inventive, gorgeously-written, and heart-wrenching.
Ha is looking at the two faces of urban South Korea - on one hand the shining advertisements and hopes and dreams, and on the other hand all the trash and filth on the ground, and all the limitations in life; and she's looking at how people live within these contrasts, how it damages them and impacts how they act. There is a lot of false face, of humble inappropriate flirtation and manipulation, of careless risk-taking and self-destruction. There is a lot of moldy trash.
This is a 1999 collection of short stories, only translated last year. I don't know how to explain, but it feels like the 1990's. The stories, each about 20 pages, each took me almost exactly 40 minutes to read.
I would like to tell you how wonderful these are, that they are as beautiful as the cover, but I struggled with them and the negative energy, I struggled to see the hope or play. (And they certainly are not beautiful.) That's why I put it down in October. Ultimately a few caught my attention, especially a playful one near the end, called Early Beans. This one covers the really bad day one young man has on his girlfriends birthday, where 1st everything goes wrong in his frivolous plans, and then he optimistically makes it much worse.
21. Flowers of Mold by Ha Seong-nan published: 1999 translation: from Korean by Janet Hong (2019) format: 212-page paperback from Open Letter Books acquired: May 2019 read: Oct 18-23, Apr 18-20 time reading: 6 hr 56 min, 2.0 min/page rating: 3½ locations: South Korea about the author South Korean from Seoul, born June 28, 1967
I was reading a 1-star review of this book and the main complaint was that there’s a lot of references to vomit and he didn't understand what the author was trying to say. Now, this was one white man’s opinion and he is definitely entitled to it (if anything, the world has reinforced this entitlement his entire life). But, it’s hard not to take his review personally. I mean, his one-line deduction of "Nightmare" as a story about a woman who “imagines” getting raped is pretty abhorrent. But, I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me share why I thoroughly enjoyed this collection (as well as an angry Asian woman rant below).
Flowers of Mold, a collection of short stories by Ha Seong Nan, is deeply unsettling as it explores the darkest depths of our human mind. These short stories were first published in 1999 in South Korea and translated into English in 2019. And while you can definitely find evidence of that time period when reading this, the themes of gender and economic inequality, mental illness, and prejudice still feel ever so relevant, unfortunately.
Dark and bleak, there is an undertone of terror in each story with vivid descriptions of the unsavory to ensure that you feel uncomfortable. But to read this is to take a glimpse into a part of the Korean identity that is difficult to face. A part where sexual assault is never believed. A part where mental illness is never acknowledged. A part where trauma is never discussed. A part where shame is deeply rooted in anything that is seen as outside of the norm. Ha’s writing, deliberate and even insidious, has a way of entangling you into the ugly places of the Korean identity. The places that are immoral, and eerily familiar. The places where our deepest desires and darkest thoughts manifest. The places that induce mania, obsession, and bigotry. The places I don't agree with but know exist in Korean culture. It's ugly but it's real and I think Ha brings these issues to light in the most eerie way.
Now I don’t expect everyone to enjoy this type of writing. But, what bothered me about the 1-star review is the immediate berating of a book without bothering to try to understand the cultural nuances that were missed. Instead of bashing a book about the presence of vomit and leaving comments about how much you hated it and how you would never want to visit South Korea because of it (because one book equals an entire country, right?), how about you step back, read the room (see: privileged, white man reviewing a translated work written by a woman of color set in a country he has zero background in) and try to write a critical, but respectful review? We do not need to like everything we read. In fact, we should definitely voice our opinions when we don't. But, I do think we should be respectful of the time and effort writers put into their work (as long as it's not harmful), regardless if we enjoyed it or not. And 1-star reviews by white people who do not understand the nuances of a culture they have no knowledge/experience/authority of are not only irresponsible but extremely harmful. These stories do not have to fit into a white narrative for them to be deemed worthy. And if you didn't know, these types of reviews say so much more about the type of person you are (ignorant, privileged, entitled, etc.) than it does about the actual work you're reviewing. So, please step back, read the room, and listen. You might learn something.
It's a dreamy collection of short stories that have completely slipped my mind. It's only been a week or so since I've finished and they're gone. There's nothing here to latch onto - completely elusive and ephemeral. Even murder is flattened in the telling. I had to return to the book and flip through the chapters to remember each story and already they're slipping away. It's frustratingly magical how these stories refuse to leave any sort of impression on me.
South Korea is finally getting its due as the great storytelling mecca it is. The South Korean film industry has been on fire for decades now and director Boon Joon-Ho's latest film "Parasite" made history recently as the first South Korean film to score an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.
Not to be left behind, well known South Korean authors like Han Kang and Ha Seong-nan are finally being discovered by western audiences. Though it was published in her native South Korea all the way back in 1999, one of Seong-nan's short story collections, "Flowers of Mold", was only published in English last year, by independent publisher Open Letter Books.
I have a mixed record with short story collections. I recently read acclaimed Israeli writer Etgar Keret's The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God & Other Stories and found it lacking, though I'll read Raymond Carver any day. I'm happy to announce then that "Flowers of Mold" is as deliciously weird as advertised, though, as always, some stories are better than others.
Here's a rundown of the 10 stories in Seong-nan's collection, in order.
1. Waxen Wings
You can probably get the allusion to Icarus from the title alone, and indeed it's about a woman who, as a child, first discovers the thrill of hanging suspended in the air. This thrill quickly turns into an addiction and her life soon turns into a pursuit of this defiance of gravity with, true to the title, somewhat grave results. While intriguing, this was probably the story I liked least in the collection.
One night in the pouring rain, a man sneaks into the upper floor room of a house on a huge plantation and rapes the young daughter of the land owner. She wakes up. Relieved that it was just a nightmare. But if she had dreamt it, why are there muddy tracks leading from the window to the bed?
3. The Retreat
The owner of a building with many commercial tenants is rumored to be selling. The tenants have poured their savings and years of their lives into the businesses that take up space in the building and are freaking out accordingly at the news that they might have to leave. When one of these tenants, an older, respected academy owner, agrees to talk to the young man who runs the building, all hell breaks loose.
This was my favorite story in the collection and may be one of the best short stories I've ever read. The eeriness and gradual escalation of events feels ripe for a Hitchcock adaptation. Really fantastic.
4. The Woman Next Door
When the new woman who just moved into the apartment building asks her neighbor to borrow a spatula, it soon becomes clear that there are some things you can't ever expect to be returned.
Along with "The Retreat", this is a highlight of the collection. The ending will cause you to reevaluate everything you read before, and might even make you think you're going a little bit crazy. Really, really good.
This is about a young man who works at a Chrysler dealership. His goal is to sell the luxury sedan that rotates on the pedestal in the middle of the showroom but every time he "gets the vibe" that a buyer is near, something happens and ruins his chance of making the sale.
This story is about a young man who polishes the windows of the dealership each and everyday so that they're so clean a bird would be fooled into flying into them.
This story is about a young man who finds an entire outfit scattered up the length of a telephone poll.
6. Your Rearview Mirror
A security guard in a department store watches a woman admire the gray dress displayed on a mannequin. The woman shoplifts various items but the man fails to stop her. One day she comes for the dress and the guard's life is changed.
7. Flowers of Mold
The title story in the collection is about a man distraught that the woman he loved chose someone else. He's certain that if he had only known her better, he would have made her love him. Confident in his belief, he begins searching through his neighbors' garbage to learn more about them.
An employee at an advertising company is charged with writing a memorable catchphrase for a generic brand of toothpaste. While wracking his mind trying to come up with something, he runs into the young woman who is to be the face of the product. He's certain he's seen her before ...
9. Early Beans
A man needs to go to the mall to buy a gift for the woman he's courting. He also needs to think up a really good joke, something that will make her laugh because, if he succeeds, she says she will "give herself to him". Along the way he gets into an accident and hits a young man on a delivery bike. If he would please deliver a package, the delivery guy would be very grateful. As the delivery guy's in the hospital, delivering the package is the least the man can do, isn't it?
Two people are thrown together following a series of bizarre events. A woman accidentally sits on a newborn baby in a hospital waiting room and makes a run for it, and a man's obsession with his sashimi knife turns bloody. Things don't end well.
In short, this is a fabulously strange collection of stories that speaks not only to life in modern-day South Korea but life in the western world generally. It's fantastically original and certainly unlike anything you've read before.
Not what I expected. This is an #OwnVoice Korean book of short stories, and I was under the impression that the stories would lean more towards being speculative fiction with an underlying element of horror, possibly paranormal horror. While the stories are speculative, and some do hold a glimmer of dread, the overall themes were...very normal, but in a horrible way.
I found myself deeply unsettled and uncomfortable more than anything. Dysfunctional families, rape, sexual assault, an abundance of squabbling - these are not themes that I enjoy reading about as central elements to the plot. I feel that these stories touch more on the horrors of everyday life and its cruel complexities: Families who don't really listen or see you, sexual assault which happens repeatedly because the scum gets away with it, making women feel like they're crazy when they experience abuse that can't be proven, the dark side of mental health where the person is unhinged and a danger to others.
Also, fatphobic comments along the lines of "not an ounce of fat on their body" in a glorifying manner of the ideal physique is a personal annoyance of mine, along with accusing someone of being "retarded". I suppose this book just wasn't for me.
eARC provided by Open Letter via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.
Content Warnings for sexual assault, rape, predatory behavior, neglect, violence, fatphobia, mental health in a negative light. ♡
This collection first came on my radar thanks to the fantastic Globetrotting feature in the New York Times earlier this year, showcasing some of the best upcoming lit-in-translation for 2019. I've been loving the recent crop of female Korean authors like Han Kang (The Vegetarian) and Han Yujoo (The Impossible Fairy Tale) so figured I'd give this a try as well. "Flowers of Mold" is Ha Seong-nan's English-language debut, and aptly titled as it blends the beautiful with the disturbing in ten wildly imaginative tales. A common theme seems to be ordinary people leading routine lives who find themselves upended by strange or unexpected circumstances. There's a hint of menace at every turn which keeps you held tightly in suspense and waiting with bated breath to see how things end up for these characters. While I quite enjoyed these stories, I'll be even more excited should we get a proper novel from this author in the future!
I would like to add is that the book was longlisted for the 2020 Pen America translation prize. The weird fiction aspect of these stories can sometimes be hit and miss, but I loved the author's depiction of commonplace characters, detailing them with enough quirks and nuance to make them individually interesting. I agree with Paul on "Waxen Wings," one of the more complex stories in the collection, but my favorite was, "Flowers of Mold," the title story for the almost beautiful description of a man's investigation of his neighbors bags of garbage in search of a imagined love.
As many of you know, I like my tales, with a slightly menacing tone, especially, lurking just below the surface, and this unsettling collection of ten stories, fits that bill. These are all based in Korea and mostly deal with ordinary lives, being disrupted by disturbing or unusual events.
Collecting several stories from prominent Korean author Ha Seong-nan, “Flowers of Mold” offers segments that examine the inherent tragedy brought on by our own humanity. From a woman whose memory is fading, to a man who searches for any clue of personality in another’s trash bin, these stories offer an insight into the daily life of some familiarly tragic figures.
“Flowers of Mold” is a novel that is hard to pin down genre wise, although the subject matter is undoubtedly tragic and somewhat horrific, a emotionally disengaged narrative running through the stories does not entirely express the author’s intent. As a result, the stories put the emphasis on the reader to determine the degree of tragedy through their own understanding, making for a personalized experience that defies a simple genre definition.
The opening story “Waxen Wings” aptly sets the tone for the following short stories, acting as a good example to further explain the approach Seong-Nan takes. The story relates one girl’s childhood dream to be able to fly and how that affected the rest of her life, from her decision to try gymnastics, and eventually learn how to hang glide. Unfortunately for the woman, each of her attempts is met with disappointment or tragedy, reflecting a life of squashed dreams and her desires put into the world coming back unanswered.
Each additional story offers somewhat of a deviation on this concept, but still sees the protagonists missing out or losing something of great importance to them. Underscored by the author’s meticulous and emotionally detached descriptions, each tale serves to present a tragic scenario for the reader to interpret. As a result, some of the stories come across as particularly devastating as issues such as family, romance, community, loneliness etc. are all explored, ensuring at least a few tales will uncomfortably lodge themselves into the reader’s consciousness.
However, that is not to say that all the stories are consistently poignant, and their placement almost seems to echo this sentiment. Unfortunately the collection begins to lose steam with each entry in both emotional impact and addressing of universal truths (Wanting Love, Comfort, Community). The last few stories feel disconnected from the opening ones, offering specific scenarios with very little exploration beyond the author’s own matter of fact approach to the subject material.
This uncomplimentary flow in narrative structure is subject to Ha’s fondness for descriptive observations. For example, the titular “Flowers of Mold” describes rotting garbage in such minute and graphically disgusting detail that it adds to the discomfort of the protagonist, reflecting his plight to find human connection in a chaotic world. Adversely, the meticulous descriptive approach becomes tedious in a later entry that focuses on toothpaste, when the climax of the story falls short in offering greater commentary. Thankfully, this sentiment only takes root in the closing three stories, with the seven previous entries having redeeming quality in the themes explored.
“Flowers of Mold” is a really unique experience, which can become soul crushing as stories begin to reflect the reader’s fears or insecurities. For those looking to challenge themselves, the stories will explore the darkest corner of their minds, provoking fears and insecurities that are intrinsic to the human experience.
However, it is understandable that this is not an experience for everyone, with myself going in to this title with little knowledge and experiencing a strong reaction to certain stories, leaving me feeling devastated with certain outcomes. Off of the back of my own experience, I can’t recommend a title like this enough to those who enjoy challenging narratives focused around tragic scenarios.
This is a fantastic collection of well-honed short stories by a very talented writer. Loved the way each story starts out focused on a seemingly ordinary life, and then Ha slowly peels away the reader's sense of normalcy, layer by layer, until leaving us equal parts disturbed and fascinated by the end. Can't wait for more from this author - Open Letter will be publishing at least one more collection from Ha in the (hopefully near) future.
This collection of 10 short stories should be on your buy-and-read-this-immediately list!
One thing that is so important to me in my continuing reading education is exploring writers of color (especially women!) and also books in translation. This book ticks both of those boxes, but beyond that, it is a brilliant collection that should be a classic of world literature.
These stories were published in their original language, Korean, a decade ago in 1999, a fact I find astonishing because I was struck by the immediacy and raw nowness upon reading these. This is without a doubt one of the best collections of stories I’ve read in a while, and it’s one I know I will continue to put in the hands of everyone I know.
The story “The Woman Next Door” has stayed with me long after reading. On the surface, it is the story of a beleaguered housewife named Yeongmi who befriends her new neighbor. Things begin simply enough: she envies her neighbor’s seemingly simple and perfect life and is quick to help her out or lend her things. But their relationship, and then Yeongmi’s life, begins to breakdown and as a reader, I was left wondering if she was having a mental breakdown due to stress and jealousy or if she was being gaslighted by the neighbor. As with all of Seong-nan’s stories, though the surface is seemingly banal, the narratives thrum with a disquieting undercurrent and, as the title story suggests, mix what is beautiful with what is rotting.
If you were a fan of The Vegetarian, you should definitely check out this collection. I am already impatiently awaiting the publication of Bluebeard’s First Wife, another of her short story collections, to be published by Open Letter Books in June.
the ten stories that compose ha seong-nan's collection, flowers of mold, are each wonderfully unsettling in their own way. just beyond the periphery of normalcy, across the boundary of the banal and expected, ha's stories exist within a world where nothing is quite as it seems at first glance. obsession, compulsion, jealousy, paranoia, and perhaps even downright madness mark the private lives of her characters, which, inevitably, cannot be contained within for long. permeating the south korean author's short fiction is an encompassing atmosphere of unease, foreboding, and disquiet. flowers of mold strays close to the darkness, but with the light still visible—engendering an even greater sense of dread than had the stories slipped entirely into the shadows.
her mother pointed at the empty hole and said anxiously, "look dear! this is all a nightmare, just a nightmare. so wake up now, please, won't you wake up?"
*translated from the korean by janet hong (ancco, han yujoo, et al.)
It's something of a shame that it's taken so long for Ha's writing to see a wide English release, for had it happened sooner I'm almost positive she'd be a favorite among Asia's ever-increasing pool of genius contemporary women writers. Flowers of Mold is written with an awareness for the insignificant, crafting meticulous portraits of the unspoken anxieties and private delusions that often burden unassuming lives. Desperate for meaning, Ha's characters - a variety of struggling urbanites - often go unnamed, anonymous within their own stories as they stumble toward self-discovery. And while undoubtedly grounded, Flowers of Mold is effectively unnerving in its portrayal of the banal, at times casting doubt in sanity and infecting reality with the surreal.
If nothing else, this collection is an excellent introduction to a very talented voice, and I sincerely hope to see future translations of her work.
This is a very good set of short stories. Some are better then others, but Seong-nan's style (in translation) is so readable and feels so organic and off-the-cuff that my interest was consistently engaged and I was ready for anything to happen with each new passage. These are tight well crafted stories that turn on a dime, and mostly land with excellent little epiphanies. The tone fits into something like a gothic realm, with each character and event depicted with realism undergirded with aspects of the grotesque and disturbing, and a sense of thoughtful social and cultural critique at play as much as fundamental questions about humanity and human relations.
That is to say there is some heft, tension, and some dark humor spun around some very real and human characters. All depicted deftly.
If you like short stories, if you are a fan of contemporary Korean film/literature, and/or if you just like good writing, you will find something good here.
Similar to some of my other favourite Asian authors I love how Korean Ha Song-nan can take her characters everyday routine in life eg. commute, places, home and workplace etc and then suddenly they find themselves in unexpected circumstances or situations. The fragility is how the event is emotionally and physically dealt with, you can feel the dark edge and the suspense is held to the outcome of each of the ten separate stories. Because routine is universal each tale is realistic even through surrealism. Flowers of Mold is so aptly named, as its a mixture of the beautiful and dark. A wonderful collection of stories that I dipped in to and savoured. Recommended for all fans of this genre.
These short stories are captivating. They are realistic, more or less, but also deeply unsettling and strange. Ha Seong-nan is a Korean writer, and many of her stories are about life in and around Seoul, about people’s experiences in apartment buildings, parks, and workplaces, about life on crowded buses and office complexes. Advertising messages on billboards feature prominently. Her characters are trying their best to get by, and I found them deeply sympathetic, but they often face obstacles they just do not know how to confront. The stories are beautiful, inventive, gorgeously-written, and often heart-wrenching.
A collection of short stories, translated from Korean, that seem to have an elusive thread connecting them. You feel right on the edge of "seeing" or "feeling" something that is there in each story and in the collection. A little like deja-vu in feeling- there, but just far enough away that you can't grasp it. Unsettling and creepy while disturbing for reasons you can't quite put your finger on. I liked it!
these are gripping, haunting stories of nameless men and women plodding through the mundanity and isolation of life but really treading on the edge or fully sinking into madness. the language is direct and deliberate but there’s a rising tension and suspense built into every paragraph. i won a copy of this book in a giveaway from the publisher and i had almost no expectations for it, but after two pages of the first story, Waxen Wing, i was hooked and it just got better (much better) from there. highly recommended.
"He put on rubber gloves and picked up the garbage strewn about his entrance. Rotten potatoes and rice covered with green mold crumbled in his hands. He gagged repeatedly. Though the garbage was his own, it seemed completely foreign to him"
Excellent collection of weird and uncomfortable short stories. Excellent translation and lovely repetition of imagery throughout the stories.
These are incredible short stories. Each takes normal ordinary events and gives it a surprising & unsettling twist. Did the crime really happen or is it a nightmare? From crimes to characters to motives, things are not quite what they seem.
Great stories that at the end of each left me wanting to read more.
If you ask me about this book in a few years I will probably say rearview mirrors showing a different reality, broken glass, billboard models, getting to know a person by studying garbage and vomit, and flying. Those were the returning tropes for me in the ten stories in Flowers of Mold.
Take everyday life and throw in something unexpected and see how they react, what old traumas resurface and if they can stay in touch with reality. To them the change of fate is normal everyday life, for the reader, it is a short laugh "of course something like that happens". It is believable, yet after a few stories, you're waiting for something to happen and are looking for the returning tropes mentioned above.
My favorite stories were Nightmare and The woman next door. Both stories deal with the thin line between reality and dream in such a way that the main character starts to doubt her grip of reality. Which memories are real and which aren’t? This also plays a role in other stories where the rearview mirror or cracked glass shows a different reality from the one the main character perceives as real.
Even though I didn’t find every story as interesting, I would still recommend this short story collection because the stories challenge you to understand them and to grasp their underlying meaning.
**More about the stories**
1) Waxen wings A story all about wanting to fly, to rise up like Icarus. The symbolism is strong in this one but the characters felt a bit detached. A special mention for the last sentence of this story though. The story takes place in Seoul and mentions Changgyeong and Changdeok Palace.
2) Nightmare Interesting order that might not be chronological. Is it a dream or reality? This story takes place at a farm a few hours from Seoul.
3) The retreat A bit boring, but it resembles everyday struggles about making a living. One of the characters owns a fried chicken franchise (Good Chicken) and the main character inherited a study hall or academy. At the end of the story, they go to a retreat on a deserted island an hour up the Bukhan river from Nami Island.
4) The woman next door Again about doubting your own memory and version of reality.
5) Flag This story starts high on a pole. Together with the main character we read a dead man’s diary about his work at a car dealership in Seoul and his meetings with the Billboard model. It is about a dream that feels real, about shedding your skin but also about failing at something you work hard for.
6) Your rearview mirror Luckily enough this trope gets its own story named after it. While driving in the bus the rearview mirror cracks after an accident and shows a new truth. This story takes place at a shopping center in Myeongdong and we also follow the characters on a walk from Hannam and Yongsan Station to Itaewon.
7) Flowers of mold The story this book was named after but not my favorite story. It is about obsession and about using garbage collection to get to know a person.
8) Toothpaste About being traumatized by things from the past. The billboard model makes her return. The character lives in an apartment in Incheon just outside Seoul.
9) Early beans Can you avoid problems by staying at home? How about lightning? We follow the main character on his delivery trip to Incheon.
10) Onion The billboard got replaced but a car accident from a previous story makes its return. One of the characters is a chef specialized in fish and talks about restaurants and fish markets (like Noryangjin Fish Market). In the end, he accepts a job at South Korea’s east coast in the Gangneung area.