Violets – The Feminist Press at CUNY – 222 pages – $22.03
BOOK REVIEW EDITOR ELLA KELLEHER WRITES – “Violets, Violin, Violence, Violator,” sings the main character, San, as she reads a dictionary. In a few short lines, a beautiful purple flower turns into “one who breaks the rules, invades, insults, violates”. South Korean author Kyung-Sook Shin, known for her acclaimed novel The Court Dancer (2018), and experienced translator Anton Hur (cursed rabbit2021), weave together darkness, beauty and violence in the complex narrative of violets (2022).
On a wet and sticky day in May, their friendship suddenly ends. While playing in the fields, the two swim fully clothed in a river. They decide to dry off completely naked. Lying side by side, the two embrace and kiss. San decides, “I will love you more than myself.” She caresses a birthmark on Namae’s back. Namae, full of regret and shame, runs off without another look and refuses to speak to San again.
Namae’s rejection of her catapults San into a world of loneliness. The first spark of joy came from a job offer at a local flower shop in Seoul. She’s in her twenties in the big city with all the opportunities she’s never had, but she decides to tend to the exotic, native flora. San sees herself in the delicate flowers she tends: “Every time she wipes the window or waters the plants on display in the street, it is her own fragile inner self that she is watering.” Perhaps she imagines herself as the loving parent she never had, caring for delicate flowers on which she has superimposed her younger self.
Working alongside San is the charismatic and courageous Su-ae. Although their relationship runs deep, San keeps Su-ae at bay. A psychological safety net designed by her childhood in response to the deep trauma Namae caused, Su-ae senses this invisible fracture and tries to cross it and fails. San’s downfall begins when she indulges her fascination with a womanizing photographer who one day ventures into flower shops to take pictures of the merchandise. He throws her a single throwaway compliment. A passing moment of flirtation turns into a dark obsession.
San sees the man as a being split in two: while his demonic self tries to grab his attention and lure him into self-destruction, his true self remains modest and indifferent towards her. San’s attraction is not the one born of this moment of exchanged glances. Instead, it “waited for millennia before bursting out with a bang.” Author Kyung-sook Shin establishes that San’s experience of loneliness, lust, distrust, and a myriad of other puzzling emotions is a decidedly feminine outcry that “for centuries was never heard”. San’s story aims to mirror the thousands of similar stories told by women before her.
The serene beauty of the novel comes from brief moments when San is really happy. A day when San spends working on a farm for the flower shop owner gives him the satisfaction of a hard day’s work, strengthening his bonds with his companions and colleagues. Sharing a meal, greeting a few drinks under the beating heat of the sun. However, Shin’s slow-paced, dreamy writing style leaves a constant impression that San’s joy will always be fleeting. San, a metaphor for all the forgotten and ostracized women in society, represents the wayward contentment that so many women experience. The letters San receives from her estranged mother, a reminder of her abandonment and an unhealthy obsession with brewing with the photographer’s objectification of her infect San’s mind with darkness.
Every scene in Shin’s story is saturated with raw, sometimes indescribable feeling. feeling. Depicted is a tapestry of events brimming with misogyny, dramatizing the desires and aspirations of a doomed protagonist who yearns in his own way for connection and independence. Shin’s afterword completes his novel. She writes that “violets are very small plants. So small they are easily overlooked as weeds. The time Shin spends telling San’s story and describing the hostile and confusing world she lives in reveals that even the most vulnerable and seemingly insignificant stories deserve respect and understanding. Even something small and helpless like a violet is beautiful and worth cherishing.
Ella Kelleher, an LMU English major, is a book review editor and editor for Asia Media International. She majored in English with a concentration in multi-ethnic literature.