THE FIRE WITHIN: In Samuel Park’s debut novel, This Burns My Heart, reviewer Susan Soon He Stanton finds the post-Korean War protagonist, the long-suffering Soo-Ja, a complex character whose one mistake leads to a lifelong slow burn.
ISSUE: FALL 2011
DEPT: Plugged In
STORY: Susan Soon He Stanton
Perhaps it goes without saying that much of the recent fiction depicting life in post-war South Korea has been understandably bleak. However, Samuel Park’s This Burns My Heart is an understatedly brilliant tale of middle-class dysfunction told with Chekhovian aplomb. Inspired by incidents in Park’s mother’s life, the story follows the beautiful Soo-Ja, a student activist with a bright future. The day before her wedding, Soo-Ja declines a surprise proposal from an enigmatic doctor and unwittingly chooses a life of stifling customs.
Crippled by her own acute awareness that she is superior to her excruciatingly substandard life, Soo-Ja takes comfort in her only daughter and struggles to find a place in her husband’s household. In a foreboding scene, Soo-Ja’s husband Min whispers his thanks on their wedding night. “‘For what?’ Soo-Ja whispered back. Min turned his back to her. ‘You’ll find out soon enough.’”
From that moment on, the next 20 years of Soo-Ja’s life progress not with a bang but a whimper, and the ambitious girl becomes trapped in a corrosive house where her in-laws administer death by a thousand cuts. Isolated from the world, Soo-Ja watches as the South Korea she wanted to build flourishes without her while her marriage festers under a veneer of polite disappointment.
Although a sympathetic character, Soo-Ja suffers through the novel like an ingénue trapped in a haunted house — just get out of the house! But for one seemingly good reason or another, she does not, cannot, and through the passage of her life, despite great displays of bravery and personal strength, the emotion you will most acutely feel for Soo-Ja is pity. However, the story is not without humor or hope, and Yul, the mysterious doctor from Soo-Ja’s youth, reappears on the horizon like a harvest moon. The introduction of Yul’s wife and Soo-Ja’s abiding honor hinder the possibility of an easy solution.
Park’s narrative has an epic quality although not much happens — ordinary lives fallen apart at the seams. Although well executed, at times one might be left hoping Park would widen his scope to write more extensively about the state of South Korea outside of his cast of characters. Much of the novel is organized around a singular, Jane Austen-esque notion that Soo-Ja’s life would have been perfect if she married the right man. All of her problems — love, money, happiness — hinge on a single mistake made in her youth. It would be fine if Soo-Ja alone naïvely believed this to be true, but the novel asserts this belief as well and the
plot serves as a cautionary tale against a bad match. Nonetheless, Park’s skill with creating fully realized
characters, especially some of the more unlikable ones, such as Soo-Ja’s rivals (her mother-in-law and Yul’s wife), keep the story lively and acerbic. Although Soo-Ja plays the martyr, Park is aware of her flaws and keeps her character complex enough to hold interest. Park’s representation of life and customs in a Korean household, including a visiting matchmaker, religious holidays, and most notably Soo-Ja’s traditional wedding, are appealingly true to life; his economic prose never devolves into the exotic ham-fisted flourishes occasionally found in lesser works of the genre. Although an exciting and potentially unfamiliar world to his reader, Park does not forget he is telling the story through Soo-Ja’s perspective, and she has seen it all. Through Soo-Ja’s eyes, Park beautifully evokes 1960s war-torn South Korea, a country struggling between conflicting impulses to preserve or rebuild.
Written with clarity and elegant restraint, This Burns My Heart is sure to engage.
– Susan Soon He Stanton
More stories from Audrey’s Fall issue here.