August is Women in Translation Month (#WITmonth), so I’ll only review books by women in translation.
On the night of the day I started The Impossible Fairytale, I dreamed I was one of first three people in the city to read it. We met to discuss it every Wednesday. We were like Macbeth’s witches. When we went our separate ways after the meetings, we told everyone else about the book. We recited passage after passage. And the book spread from person to person like an enchantment. It was like in Sleeping Beauty where everybody has fallen asleep, except instead of sleeping everybody was reading The Impossible Fairytale.
There is something witchy about this book. It is often concerned with finding the proper names for things. Its sentences are short and repetitive, lending its long paragraphs a hypnotic quality. There is a scene that could be interpreted as animal sacrifice. There are superstitions. There are disquieting dreams. It’s rich in wordplay, which the translator, Janet Hong, did a heroic job of conveying in English. It’s rich in strange imagery, starting with the black dog swimming downriver in the first chapter. And everyone who’s read The Prisoner of Azkaban knows that black dogs are omens. If a mutilated copy of The Impossible Fairytale were lucky enough to make it through one of the many coming apocalypses, I can imagine a band of salvagers coming across it poking out of a sand dune, and mistaking it for a book of spells.
The Impossible Fairytale is divided in two parts. In the first, we follow two children, Mia and The Child. They go to the same class. Mia is privileged. She has two fathers (her mother’s husband and her mother’s lover) and this means she gets double the gifts. The Child tries to be as close as possible to invisible. Except that, one night, she sneaks back into school and adds new sentences to the other kids’ journals. Things like “I hate you” and “I want to kill, too”. This triggers a cycle of paranoia and violence that culminates with an unexpected and shocking scene at the end of part one. The novel’s second part is told from the perspective of the author, who receives a visit from The Child herself–who is not pleased with the things the author made her do in the book’s first half.
Few books are as sharp as The Impossible Fairytale in its exploration of the petty fears and cruelties of childhood. The sadistic games, the grotesque misunderstandings, the warped sense of how the world works. The awful things grown-ups do in front of kids. In a particularly memorable chapter, located in the novel’s middle, Han takes a break from the plot to dedicate a short paragraph to each of the children in Mia and The Child’s class. In each paragraph, we learn things about their lives that are by turns horrible, mundane, and darkly funny. For example:
“Lee Jun-gyu’s grandmother enjoyed cultivating the small garden on the rooftop of their house. His family liked to keep pets. Tropical fish, hamsters, guinea pigs, cats, chicken, dogs. One day, he turned up his grandmother’s vegetable garden to dig a pond. While he was busily digging out the soil with a trowel, he found the carcass of a small animal. It looked like a hamster or guinea pig. Grandmother, he called. What? She said. A piece of flesh that hadn’t rotted away was stuck to the gray bones. Lee Jun-gyu flung aside the trowel. He felt as though his house were an old graveyard.”
It made me wonder–what would my paragraph contain? Maybe it would say how, at the age of seven I think, I used to play “torture” with my friends at recess. Two kids were the torturers, using fallen branches and pine needles as their tools; one kid was the torturee–always the same one, who we all thought was enjoying himself until it turned he wasn’t; I watched.
Some readers may want to approach The Impossible Fairytale with caution. Specifically, it’s worth noting that domestic abuse is a strong (though mostly implicit) theme. And there are a couple of shockingly violent scenes–one of which involves a cat (though, despite being a proud crazy cat man, I did not put my Kindle down in horror when the scene happened, and was able to read it all the way through).
However, you should read The Impossible Fairytale if you like fiction that bends language in new and exciting ways, if you want to read something dark and twisted and yet also often quite funny, if you want to be reminded of the retrospectively disturbing stuff you yourself did as a child, and if you want strange dreams.