Review of “Stingray” by Kim Joo-Young (김주영)

Cover of Kim Joo-Young's StingrayStingray, by Kim Joo-Young (available for pre-order only!), translated by Louis and Inrae You Vinciguerra, is a tricky and ultimately rewarding piece of fiction which begins by taking you one way, in fact a quite traditional way, and then upping the ante by distorting those traditions.

As Stingray begins, narrator Se-Young and his mother are asleep as a massive amount of snow dumps onto their village. When they arise, to their surprise, they have that female visitor who will not budge from their house, even while being beaten. As this scene unfolds, Se-Young reflects on a stingray that had been hanging in the kitchen, which the young girl has eaten during the night. Se-Young sees the stingray as a both a kite (for he loves flying kits) and a symbol of his lost father (for Se-Young always loses his kites, as he has lost his father). Se-Young’s mother has dried the stingray and hung it on the door to remind her of her husband, and that she is still a married woman. Her hope is that when the family does re-unite, the stingray will be their first shared meals. The female visitor is revealed to be a city girl who the family names Sam-rae, and Se-Young almost predictably develops a crush on her.

The story then weaves back and forth, between the story of Sam-rae fitting into the house and not fitting in, and the quite traditional story of the mother, abandoned by her husband, waiting hopefully for the husband to return. Here, Kim weaves in quite a great deal that is traditional and, in fact, predictable. The story of the abandoned wife is quite common in Korean fiction (it dates far back into Confucian time, with the kisaeng sometimes the agent of the separation and sometimes a woman of lesser virtue). Stories like Kim Yong-ik’s After 17 Years deal directly with the issue of the wife (in this case successfully) waiting for the return of a lost husband and stories like Shin Kyung-sook’s Where the Harmonium Once Stood feature the ‘lost, stolen, or strayed’ husbands as key and expected plot points. Kim does an excellent job of fitting Sam-rae’s story, which becomes quite complicated, into the overall plot as a counterpoint to larger tale.

As the story continues, Kim starts piling on the surprises. Se-Young’s mother is a great character (Kim calls the book “a critical biography of my loving mother”), individual and well written, and when yet another single woman, this time with a child, shows up at the house, the mother sees under the surface  that woman’s story to a much larger narrative lurking. Add in a lovestruck neighbor, misunderstandings about chickens, and the increasing chance that the family will be re-united, and Kim increases the pace of the story as it nearly hurtles (a word I never thought I would use as I began the story) to its surprising and heart-warming (for some readers, at least), conclusion.

Along the way there are feints, well-drawn secondary characters, and an increasing ratcheting of tension as differing expectations clash. When the end does come, with the kind of rapid and unexpected plot twists that one might expect from Breaking Bad (with none of the violence or drugs^^), it will be an unusual reader who is not surprised and impressed.

Another winner from the Dalkey/LTI Korea Library of Korean Literature.

Author and Romanization Note: Kim Joo-Young has a Wikipedia page (part of the LTI Korea/KTLIT Wikipedia Project) here, and you will note that he has another book translated into English, under a slightly different Romanization of his name, Chu-yong Kim, entitled The Sound of Thunder.