Choi Eunyong’s best-selling Shoko’s Smile has earned her comparisons to novelists such as Sally Rooney and Marilynne Robinson for the collection’s carefully crafted portraits of women’s relationships and intimacies formed and dissolved over time.
In the titular “Shoko’s Smile”, an epistolary friendship between Soyu, Shoko and Soyu’s grandfather begins after Shoko’s brief visit to Korea from Japan in high school. Over the the span of many years, Shoko’s letters to Soyu’s grandfather contain contradictory accounts of the life that she describes to Soyu. Later, when Soyu reads her grandfather’s letters to Shoko, she is shocked that her grandfather expresses feelings to a stranger that he cannot easily convey to those closest to him. Throughout the story there is a sense that even those closest to us are filled with unknowable compartments and that gestures made by others may not be reflective of feelings so much as an action taken to “make the other person feel comfortable.”
In “Sister, My Little Soonae”, love is adjacent to loss and the very intimacy holding a relationship together may be the very thing which unravels it. When a distant cousin—Soonae—comes to live with Hae Oak, she becomes like an older sister to her. Their intimate sisterly relationship however, is dealt a blow by the fallout of a brutal dictatorship which leaves Auntie Soonae’s husband disabled. As time goes on the two women find that they can no longer be honest with each other:
Mom tried to tread carefully on only the parts of Auntie’s heart untouched by scars, as if on thin ice, and Auntie made an effort not to bring up painful subjects lest Mom pity her in the slightest … the attitudes they adopted out of consideration for each other slowly drove them apart.
Many of Choi’s stories feature relationships which form when one woman is uniquely understood by another, or is seen in a way that they have never been seen before. In “Xin Chao Xin Chao”, the loneliness of immigrants is sharply rendered in the story of a Korean family who befriended a Vietnamese family in Germany. The narrator’s mother bears the double burden of being in a loveless marriage in a foreign country but is cared for by Mrs Nguyen who “understood our worries before we mentioned them.” Mrs Nguyen sees the narrator’s mother as no one else has ever seen her, as a woman with “a big heart and the innate capacity to sympathize with other people” and someone who “ached for the people who couldn’t ache.” Mrs Nguyen’s special understanding and affection however, does not suffice to cushion them from the collateral damage of an argument about the Korean participation in the Vietnam war, especially when the Nguyen’s losses are revealed as a result of the conflict.
Most heartbreaking of all are the truths held back out of love, as in “The Secret”, where a terminally ill grandmother ruminates on her longing for a granddaughter. She is told that her granddaughter has found a teaching position in China, but she observes a quiet devastation in her daughter and son-in-law which suggest a permanent absence. The story is brimming with love and longing, and the history of devotion and care of a nurturing caregiver heightens the sense of loss throughout.
Threaded through these stories, but very much in the background loom large political upheavals—dictatorship, the sinking of the Sewol ferry which led to the death of 304 passengers and the Vietnam War. Rather than being gratuitous, reference to these political events serve to demonstrate how intimate relationships are interrupted, or transmuted beyond repair, by these larger events.
Brilliantly conceived, the stories in Shoko’s Smile are emotionally raw and true to life: a compilation of a writer who has not only devoted time to the development of the craft, but who has invested in the deep observation of character. The resulting emotional portraiture is both extraordinary and moving.
Hannah Michell is the author of The Defections.