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A Collection of Haunting, Sometimes Disturbing Stories
Shadows of a Sound
Stories by Hwang Sun-won
Edited by J. Martin Holman
Mercury House, Incorporated, San Francisco; 1990
Review by Jerry Winzig
This collection of stories spans fifty years of Hwang Sun-won's writing career. It offers powerful and sometimes disturbing glimpses into the effects on everyday Korean life of the Japanese occupation, the division of the country into North and South, and the Korean War. More than that, though, it also captures some of the precariousness of human existence in what was a poor country.
"Cloudburst" tells the story of young love between an unnamed boy and girl who are caught in a rainstorm while playing in a farmer's fields. There are no words of love spoken between the two, and they never spend a lot of time together. But the story has unforgettable intensity and its bitter-sweet ending is enough to make you want to cry.
In "Widows," we hear the tale of a young widow who has an affair with the hired hand on the farm. It is a story of secrets kept beyond all reason, of the pain those secrets bring to everyone involved, of missed opportunities, and of lifelong loneliness.
"Clowns" is the autobiographical story of the travails of Hwang's family when they arey made homeless by the Korean War. At first they find shelter in a shed in a lawyer's mansion garden in Taegu. But their landlady takes advantage of them, treats them shabbily, and finally evicts them. After several other attempts to find shelter also fail, they make their way to Pusan, where circumstances are no better. One of the most vivid descriptions is when his two oldest children excitedly show their parents and grandparents the cigarettes and packages of chewing gum they have stolen. Hwang writes, "Their deft hands gave me sorrow. I averted my eyes."
The events in "The Diving Girl" take place on Cheju Island during the Korean War. A sickly young man named Chun-i, who is sensitive to drinking water, is taken there by his mother in the summer of 1951, because she has heard that part of the island had plenty of good water. There he meets and falls in love with a young girl who makes her living by diving for seaweed. There is much heartache in their love, and in the story of how the young girl killed her own brother, who had gone over to the Communist guerrillas.
There is a good deal of unhappiness in many of Hwang's stories, but little in the way of despair. In spite of desperate circumstances, his characters continue to try to love and care and live lives of dignity. The story, "Time for You and Me Alone," for example, is a powerful account of three solders left to retreat on their own. In spite of impossible conditions, two of them make heroic sacrifices in unexpected ways.
Hwang's stories are not entertaining, but they will grab your heart in ways that are unforgettable.
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