“The Stone Home” by Crystal Hana Kim

Crystal Hana Kim Crystal Hana Kim

A 2016 Associated Press article entitled “S Korea covered up mass abuse, killings of ‘vagrants’” told the English-speaking world about one of the biggest human rights abuses in modern South Korean history. In the 1980s, in the run-up to  the Seoul Olympics, President Chun Doo-hwan’s dictatorship intensified a crackdown on “undesirables”, rounding them up and “rehabilitating” them. At one of the largest rehabilitation centers, known as the Brothers Home, the rehabilitation in fact consisted of slave labour and institutionalized physical and psychological abuse. Sexual violence was especially prevalent.

I remember reading the Associated Press report at the time with a growing feeling of anger. More significantly though, the article also made a deep impression upon Crystal Hana Kim. It inspired her to write her second novel, The Stone Home. Kim was also intrigued by the disturbing history of the Gyeonggi Creaton Center, which is now an artists’ residency but was once a concentration camp during the Japanese colonial period. Putting the two together, Kim wanted to explore how the Republic of Korea re-enacted the institutional violence of its colonizers.

 

The Stone Home: A Novel, Crystal Hana Kim (William Morrow, April 2024)
The Stone Home: A Novel, Crystal Hana Kim (William Morrow, April 2024)

The story begins in 1980, when 15 year old Eunju and her mother, a sex worker, are hauled away by police for vagrancy. Meanwhile, Sangchul and his older brother Younchul are dragged off as they walk out of a supermarket. The novel alternates between Eunju and Sangchul’s perspective, as both pairs of characters are sent to The Stone Home, a state-sanctioned institution. The two men who run the Stone Home, known as Warden and Teacher, are sadistic abusers. Kim adds a further narrative layer: in 2011, Eunju is visited by Narae, a younger Korean American woman, who wants answers about her past. But for Eunju to answer Narae’s questions means reliving the trauma she experienced at the Stone Home.

In addition to her research on Korea during this period, Kim tells the reader in the book’s short afterword that she took inspiration from Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, a hybrid of memoir and psychotherapy that deals with Frankl’s time in the Nazi concentration camps. Frankl emphasizes freedom of choice even in situations of severe degradation and suffering. This is apparent in the different approaches of the two young protagonists: both sometimes choose actions that are harmful for their peers, and yet are also sometimes kind even when there is no immediate benefit from doing so. Ultimately though, Eunju is determined to break free from The Stone Home at all costs, while Sangchul takes the murkier path of trying to work within the system, hoping to become deputized as a “Keeper”. The word Kim chooses sounds too similar to “kapo”, the concentration camp prisoners appointed to supervise their fellow victims, to be coincidental.

One part of the AP article describes how foreign missionaries visiting the Brothers Home were shown a sanitized version of the home and its activities, while malnourished and abused people were kept out of sight. This detail inspired one of The Stone Home’s most affecting sections, which Kim turns into a brief but complex set piece. It indicts the white savior industrial complex, the desire to experience catharsis and validation from helping the developing world that can unthinkingly allow injustice to perpetuate.

 

The novel does however submerge the reader in a welter of untranslated Korean terms. For example, Youngchul’s name is rarely used. He is referred to as hyung, the Korean term that men use for older brothers or seniors. More noticeably, Kim sometimes leaves terms in Hangul, the Korean script, even when this is part of a heartfelt note from one character to another. This technique can seem alienating to the non-Korean speaking reader, and perhaps work against getting this story across to a wider audience.

Kim’s style here nevertheless has parallels with the strategy of “foreignization” advocated by translation theorist Lawrence Venuti. Venuti argued that the reader should be “sent abroad”, and confronted, that is, with culturally specific details. Kim’s work was written in English, not translated, but it is interesting to ponder which terms she renders using Korean words and which she renders in English. She could, for example, have chosen the Korean word sodaejang—literally platoon leader —but her choice of “keeper” creates a parallel with Nazi atrocities, creating further resonance for western readers. At the same time, deeper meanings are available to bilingual, bicultural readers.

Elsewhere, Kim presents the reader with a mass of cultural and linguistic verisimilitude: various Korean meals, and everyday objects like hwatu cards (a game) and bojagi (a traditional cloth for gift wrapping). More crucially, she also immerses us in the strong sense of family loyalty that pervades Korean culture. It is this jeong, a word that does not appear in the novel, but which describes an intense and Korean-configured form of closeness, that the novel ultimately explores, stacking the roles of hyung and umma (mother), against those of Warden and Teacher, roles based solely on power.

 

The movements between Eunju’s perspective and that of Sangchul—made up of short chapters of only two or three pages—can on occasion jar and break the flow of the narrative, as they tend to be. But as the novel picks up pace and moves towards its heart-stopping climax, the literary cross-cutting creates a powerful momentum. Kim’s prose is poetic but sometimes elliptical, requiring careful parsing. The amount of sensory detail makes the story immersive, vivid, and at times hard to read.

In 2022, Korea’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded that the abuses described by AP were indeed human rights violations on a mass scale. The international press began to use the Netflix series Squid Game as a reference point for the abuse, which often took the form of macabre “games”. Survivors are currently in the process of suing the state for damages, and proposing that the government seizes the assets of the wealthy family accused of these abuses. In the meantime, Kim’s powerful novel stays in the memory long after reading.


John A Riley is a writer and university lecturer based in Daejeon, South Korea.