Paul Fulcher's Reviews > Blood Sisters

Blood Sisters by Kim Yideum
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really liked it
bookshelves: korean-literature, sub-asymptote-2018-13, 2019

난 그저 이 세상을 두리번거리다가 생각난 듯 외침인지 탄식인지 모를 소리를 허공에 내지르는 패배한 청춘일 뿐. 난 이런 나의 훌륭한 패배근성이 맘에 든다.

I’m just a defeated youth, a scream, a lamentation thrust into the sky. I enjoy my excellent loser attitude.

블러드 시스터즈 - the title the Korean phonetic equivalent of Blood Sisters - was the 2011 debut novel by poet 김이듬 (Kim Yideum), and has been translated into English by Jiyoon Lee, who also translates her poetry.

Set in 1987-88, it is narrated in the first person by 정여울 (Jeong Yeoul), a 19 year old student. As the novel opens she is living with a friend, an older student Jimin, her blood sister:

"Ever since we started living together - well ever since I started leeching off her, to be specific - our period cycles starting synching up. Together we bleed profusely, struggling with the pain, and argue over the slightest provocation. We share sanitary products and philosophy."

The 1987-88 backdrop puts the novel firmly in the time of pro-democracy protests and student activism (, which certainly form an important background, but the novel focuses more on the personal and visceral (including the sanitary towels on the book cover). The author, discussing her poetry, has said:
A female writer needs to fight to build her own language against the default system. I'd say a male writer writes after philosophical contemplation and meaning-making, while a female writer writes with the language of her body, her womb, tits, tears, blood and that very process is part of creating meaning. She, perhaps, is always writing with the language of the body.
(see also for similar sentiments)
Jimin commits suicide - for reasons that gradually become clear to the reader and to Yeoul, and Yeoul herself suffers an attempted rape as well as troubled relationship with both her father and long-absent mother, and is blamed for the death in an accident of her stepbrother, to whom she is very close. But this is also a novel that contains friendship and hope.

Music plays a key role - it's the sort of novel where a Spotify playlist would have been handy - from K-pop to 1970s prog-rock. The band Metamorfosi ( also lead to a Korean pun that Lee nimbly translates: the Korean word 변태 can mean both transformation - hence is a translation of the band name - but also means deviant, which is what Yeoul assumes the band's name means.

Lee generally does an excellent job with what can't of been an easy translation. She doesn't oversmooth - the style at times feels quite Korean - but still renders the book into powerful and lyrical English, and she adds sufficient glosses (and the occasional footn0te) without being over-intrusive.

In particular, the use of honorifics in Korean speech plays an important role, and, particularly, the titles that are often used in place of names. E.g. Yeoul calls Jimin 선배, sunbe, a term used for an elder at university/work, which necessitates the first footnote. But generally, Yeoul defines herself by refusing to obey conventional, respectful terminology:

I speak with my own mouth, so I will address others on my own terms.

See here for an interview where the translator discusses various aspects including the above.

There is one small misfire. On a bus, after the 1987 Presidential election, Yeoul overhears a conversation:

The man insists that now an average joe like Roh Tae-woo has become the president, the world is gonna get better. He calls the previous presidents, Kim Yong-sam and Kim Dae-jung, country ruining bastards.

Having checked the original Korean, the 'previous presidents' isn't there, and instead is a gloss added by Lee for the English translation - but an incorrect one. Kim Yong-sam and Kim Dae-jung were the defeated candidates in the 1987 election (having split the anti-establishment vote and, as it happens, were to become (but the speaker in 1987-88 of course wasn't to know this) the two succeeding presidents.

This is the latest book from the excellent Asympote Book Club (see for a complete list) and their take on the book is here:

Overall a powerful work - 4 stars.
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Reading Progress

May 4, 2019 – Shelved
May 4, 2019 – Shelved as: to-buy-when-released
May 4, 2019 – Shelved as: korean-literature
June 6, 2019 – Shelved as: awaiting-subscriptions
June 6, 2019 – Shelved as: sub-asymptote-2018-13
June 6, 2019 – Shelved as: awaiting
June 7, 2019 – Shelved as: to-read
June 15, 2019 – Started Reading
June 16, 2019 – Shelved as: 2019
June 16, 2019 – Finished Reading

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