My title here is stolen outright from a similar review at London Korean Links, which I came across while trying to find more biographic information on Jang Eun-jin to create her wikipedia page (which I did create here, so feel free to go and add on!). This is a stunning book.
Out of all the Dalkey/LTI Library of Korean Literature, Jang Eun-Jin’s No One Writes Back is dead simple to recommend. No One Writes Back is a kind of backpacker’s solo road trip: Jihun, a young man and his blind dog (ironically once a guide dog for the blind – Jang enjoys this kind semi inversion, particularly as she reveals the back-stories of her characters) travels aimlessly through Korea for three years (NOTE TO SELF: Three Years? Surely he must have been everywhere by now?^^ Korea is not THAT big!). He carries only his clothing and an mp3 player, moves from hotel to hotel, assigns those he meets (that is, those that will give him their address) numbers, and never referring to their names (in the narrative) he writes each one of them a letter and hopes for one in return.
As the story begins Jihun “meets cute” with #751 and they begin a strange and chaste seduction of each other as they travel from hotel to hotel, she writing a novel, he writing letters. The letters Jihun is writing as we read are all of reconciliation with his family, though he freely associates his previous numbers/letters with any event that remind him of them, and this gives us a good understanding of the road Jihun has traveled.
Jang’s writing is consistently funny, both in concepts and lines and Jihun, anyone’s model for an untrustworthy narrator (and perhaps not even the author of the tale being told), is full of amusing thoughts and judgments, as well as straight-out misinformation.
If there is a slightest issue with this book, it is that it is so squarely aimed at the “aw shucks” hearts of its readers that it occasional borders on the treacly. But this is vastly overwhelmed by the surprises and the often subtle (they would not be so subtle to a Korean reader) jabs at Korean work and beauty culture. Perhaps the biggest miracle of this book is its ending which manages to take a waterfall of what could have been treacle and turn it into something quite different and unexpected and deservedly tear-jerking. One of Jang’s most amazing skills is to carefully set the carpet up for you and then yank it out in one paragraph and if you aren’t moved by the final pages of this novel you may need to check yourself for a heartbeat.
Somewhere, as I sorted through pages to use on the Wikipedia, I came across a reviewer whose name now escapes me (Thanks to Tony Malone who you can follow on twitter here, who pointed out this was from M.A.Orthofer on the brilliant Complete Review website) , who noted that this book is the living, breathing, and likely commercially unsuccessful proof of the failure of marketing of Korean literature overseas. This book should have been snapped up, the author handsomely paid, and the book published by a major publishing house. It is a story of universal appeal, well written, and clearly translated. No One Writes Back contains plenty of “Korea” in it, but it is, simply put, literature, just great literature, and that it has to be ‘snuck’ out in a collection by a noble (but small) publishing house should be considered a minor tragedy – this is a book that stacks up against any other book on the market and some savvy agent should have seen that.
Seriously, Korea needs to get better literary agents at work overseas.^^