Shin Kyung-sook’s Where the Harmonium Was is an excellent short story that could be recommended to almost anyone. Published in 1993 it tells the story of a woman who is haunted by 10 days of her life when she was “six or seven”, the 10 days, after her mother deserted the family that another woman, a “perfect” one visited. The family consists of the father, daughter (narrator) and three brothers. When the mystery/usurping woman enters the family, the narrator is immediately drawn to her, not only because she seems to possess superior household skills and sensitivity, but also because she seems to recognize the daughter, often lost in a household of four men, as an individual being.
The story is epistolary as the narrator is writing a letter to a lover in which she tries to explain why this 10-day experience in her past will keep her from leaving with him, even though she initially accepted his offer to travel abroad. The narrator is single, but her lover is a 40 year-old man, who has two children, and that family reminds the narrator of her family during the 10-day interregnum of the mystery woman.
Yet, the mystery woman is something of a hero to the narrator who says, “I want to be like this woman. This wasn’t merely because the woman wrapped the baby in a daffodil colored blanket, or because she knew to place green lentil jelly on top of bean sprouts at dinner.” The biggest brother is adamantly opposed to the new mother, and tension builds within the family. In the end, the brother’s hatred and social disapproval result in the mystery woman leaving, and the biological mother returning.
Shin weaves in the stories of two other women in similar situations, an aerobics student of the narrator and the “Cheom-cheon Granny.” In addition, there are two sets of animal symbols, a blind calf and a pair of magpies whose family life frames the larger story, which also comment on the issues that Harmonium addresses.
There is an interesting feminist subtext in this story, that the narrator is prone to “falling” for characters like the mystery woman and her lover only because she is not appreciated at home. This is an interesting addition to the larger stories’ consideration of the unfortunate role in Korean social structure, particularly their lack of control in marriages. Shin does a good job of bringing all the characters into sharp definition, often with little stories that clearly deliniate their personalities. The older brother, painfully tormented by the mystery woman’s food, one day has to actually throw it out (he had been returning it home, to register his protest) to avoid eating it.
Given the weight of history, the narrator makes a decision not to break up another family. The final defense of the narrator’s decision not to go is given in a coda to the mystery woman’s visit (actually reported mid-way through the story), in which, upon parting the mystery woman tells the narrator, “Don’t… don’t become…like me,” before she leaves the family forever.
This is a well-done story, addressing a Korean social issue that has existed since at least the time of the Yangban and Kisaeng, and Shin is delicate and non-judgmental. If you liked Please Look After Mom, you will like this work as well, for it works the same kinds of emotional ground, but if you didn’t like the romantic/nostalgic approach of Mom, you should not be scared off Harmonium, which is written in a quite different register, and comes across as subtle and complete.