“Violet, Violin, Violence, Violator,” San reads in an English-to-Korean dictionary in Kyung-sook Shin’s newly translated 2001 novel, Violets. Within a few lines the dictionary goes from the beautiful flowers to “one who breaks rules, invades, insults, rapes”. Violets is a novel built on the proximity of beauty and violence.
Shin became known in the west with her 2011 novel Please Look After Mother, which sold 2m copies and won the Man Asian literary prize. In that book a grandmother disappears after a lifetime of serving others, and Shin said she wanted to explore the values that had gone missing “as we turned to modernity”. There were multiple viewpoints, of people in their 40s and older. In Violets, Shin homes in on the single perspective of San in adolescence and her early 20s. The novel is set in 1970s South Korea, an era in which violence and repression were endemic. We don’t see any large-scale social unrest; instead Shin finds indirect and nuanced ways to conjure the atmosphere of a place where flourishing is thwarted at every turn.
The book opens in a rural village on the edge of industrialisation, where San’s family are outsiders – her father works in a factory rather than farming, and rides a motorcycle – and San is ostracised. Her father leaves and her mother periodically disappears as well, lured away by new lovers. Redemption comes for a while through a best friend, Namae, but, on a sticky May day, the friendship ends abruptly. Playing, they end up swimming fully clothed in a river. Afterwards, drying naked alongside each other, stretched out side by side “like a pair of chopsticks”, they embrace and kiss. San thinks: “I will love you more than myself.” Namae runs off, full of shame, and refuses to see her friend again.
For San this begins a lifetime of loneliness, transmuting sexual desire into a masochistic urge towards violence. There is a brief efflorescence of happiness when she moves to Seoul in her early 20s, gets a job in a flower shop and becomes close friends and roommates with her co-worker, Su-ae. The flowers themselves, in their vulnerability, beauty and need for care, are lovingly described. “Satiny white gardenia flowers unfurl between luscious green leaves, and the queen-of-the-night cactus bursts into spectacular fuchsia blossoms.” San’s identification with the flowers is explicit: “whenever she wipes the window or sprinkles the plants exposed out on the street, it’s her own fragile inner self that she’s watering”.
This cannot last, and neither can her easy daily intimacy with Su-ae. There is the sense that this friendship can only be half-hearted, because San’s fear of abandonment and impulse towards violence are both so strong. Her downfall begins when she becomes attracted to a womanising photographer who comes to the flower shop. A passing moment of flirtation spins into obsession – so much so that she feels that he enters her as a kind of inner demon, accompanying her through life even as the real man remains a stranger. From this point, her masochism gets more dangerous, and the bond with Su-ae no longer claims her. Shin writes that the desires of San’s childhood, which she has tried to sublimate, reawaken as “a fresh green sadness”: “San’s attraction did not originate this summer, but rather, it has lain in wait for millennia before bursting forth all at once.”
The narrator goes on to say that this cry “for centuries was never given an ear”, turning San’s experience into the experience of centuries of other women. This is one of several moments when the narrative voice takes over, appearing to have more power and agency than the characters. Another time, we are told that San’s loneliness and melancholy is not hers alone. “A young woman on an escalator, a young man silently walking from building to building with a résumé in hand … the same expression appears and disappears from their faces.” There is something overdetermined about this, and Shin was probably wise to move to a subtler narrative voice in Please Look After Mother. The all-knowing narrator can feel a little arch, but at its best, there’s a timeless, fable-like quality to the narration that makes the story strange and gripping. Because the narrator is so powerful, San herself seems to have terrifyingly little control over her destiny from moment to moment – itself a feeling presented as universal at this time in Seoul.
Shin has an intense feeling for place, and an ability to bring it alive not as mere setting but as intensely felt imaginative terrain. It feels at times that San’s self-destructive loneliness could be the self-destructive loneliness of many of the young women surrounding her, because the city itself is characterised as so lonely a place. It’s not surprising that there turn out to be as many violators as violets. What remains unclear is whether the beauty and delicacy of the violets can provide any larger redemption.