Paul Fulcher's Reviews > Flowers of Mold

Flowers of Mold by Ha Seong-nan
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bookshelves: korean-literature, 2019

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.

(NB this story had been previously translated in the anthology Waxen Wings: The ACTA Koreana Anthology of Short Fiction from Korea)

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

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Reading Progress

April 27, 2019 – Shelved
April 27, 2019 – Shelved as: awaiting
April 27, 2019 – Shelved as: korean-literature
May 4, 2019 – Shelved as: to-read
May 6, 2019 – Started Reading
May 9, 2019 – Shelved as: 2019
May 9, 2019 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-6 of 6 (6 new)

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message 1: by Sam (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sam Paul please forgive me for not asking you before linking your well done review in mine without asking your permission. If I erred, I will remove the link.

Paul Fulcher No need to ask, linking is appreciated. Thanks

message 3: by Carrie (new) - added it

Carrie I've had this book on my list to read for such a long time! Your review is a welcome reminder to finally do it. I haven't heard of the Todorov spectrum before but it was a pleasant surprise to learn it was a creation of a fellow Bulgarian. Thank you for this review, I really enjoyed it!

Paul Fulcher Thanks. It’s a term I often use in reviews as I think it is helpful and I share his love for books where it isn’t clear if what is observed has a natural explanation or not (what he called the fantastic).

message 5: by JimZ (new) - rated it 1 star

JimZ VG review. I put on my TBR list.

Paul Fulcher Definitely an author/translator/publisher worth reading.

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