20 Unforgettable Korean Novels That Will Change Your Life

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What are some of the best Korean novels translated into English?

Korean literature has long been considered one of the greatest literary traditions in the world. The country boasts over 100 years of history, and its writers have produced some of the most influential books in modern times.

Korea has a rich tradition of writing, and many of its authors have become household names around the globe. In fact, Korea is home to some of the most famous novelists in the world. These include Hwang Sunwoo, who wrote the critically acclaimed “A Tale of Two Sisters” (1958), and Kim Young-ha, whose “Spring, Autumn, and Dreams” (1988) was awarded the prestigious Man Asian Literary Prize.

You may like to subscribe to the Korean Literature Now Magazine and browse their website to keep up with the latest Korean novels, poetry, fiction, and articles.

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1. Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-joo

Translated by Jamie Chang

Best Korean Novels. Best Korean Books.

Kim Jiyoung, born 1982 begins very oddly, just like Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. A man observes his wife, Kim Jiyoung, behaving in an extremely strange way. She sometimes talks like she is someone else or makes inappropriate comments when they visit their family. What is its origin? She used to be so nice before– what happened to her now?

We then go back in time and watch Jiyoung through the story her life. She puts everything she has into becoming an independent worker with her own income. She sees herself facing challenges after challenges; she gets rejected after rejection. She sees herself as a victim of predatory boys and handy teachers. We see fetuses aborted because they’re the wrong gender and women being asked about their periods during job interviews.

“The world had changed a great deal, but the little rules, contracts and customs had not, which meant the world hadn’t actually changed at all.”

Kim Jiyoung, born 1982 is packed with so many interesting topics! One of the aspects I enjoyed most was the portrayal of Kim Jiwon’s mother. It must have been really hard for her to be a mother in between. To have been born in a time when women had no choices or opportunities and then to try to raise daughters who have some choices but still face prejudice and gender bias. Do you push them to be better? Or do you set realistic expectations?

For me, the most devastating part of Kim Jiyoung, born 1982 was the footnotes. Whenever the author referred to a statistic about Korean gender imbalances, she always provided the relevant source. It’s important to note that these statistics exist, but it’s even more important to include the data that backs them up. Plus, I can’t help but wonder if she feels compelled to write this because she expects male readers to doubt her experience and words. We know women don’t really need to be told these things; they’ve lived them.

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2. Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung

This Korean Book was translated by Anton Hur

I feel like I’m being given permission to stay alive.

If you lift up stones of reality, you’ll often discover evil lurking beneath. Bora Chung seems to have a map to these vicious hot spots and details them across the various stories in her outstanding collection Cursed Bunny.

From body horror to sci-fi, these ten stories in this Korean book will both dazzle and disturb you across their surreal landscapes of ghoulish narratives. Translated brilliantly into English by Anton Hur, these are stories that will worm into your subconscious and haunt you long after reading them. They latch onto primal fears and social orders of patriarchy and capitalis­m to dredge up their insidious nature.

Like all great stories, in Cursed Bunny. there’s a whole lot of meaning hidden in the strangeness. When Bora Chung’s characters become greedy for power or money, they usually end up suffering. Very badly. Since the stories in Cursed Bunny. are written like fairytales, it makes sense that there is a lesson embedded within them.

Bora Chung is quite impressive. The South Korean author is a professor of Slavic literature and teaches English language and literature and science-fiction studies at Yonsei University. She has also translated Russian and Polish into Korean and has written three novels and storybooks. Anton Hur has always been great, having received a PEN/Heims grant. Cursed Bunny. shows the love of language from both authors.

3. Violets by Kyung-sook Shin

Translated by Anton Hur

Like all of Kyungsook Shin’s Korean novels translated into English, VIOLETS is a story of isolation. But here we find an even more solipsistic take on the subject where a character wrestles with the simultaneous discomfort and comfort of being unseen.

In VIOLETS, San is a character who is growing in self-awareness and self-confidence, but whose actions may be impulsive. She is restless and defensive, but she is fixated on finding something that will help her feel better. Her story culminates into something that is dark and dangerous, forcing her to claim a new sense of herself.

(Discover the gripping and buzz-worthy Asian thriller, Yellowface by RF Kuang, that will leave you breathless and craving for more!)

The writing in VIOLETS mirrors the duality in San’s life. Sentences that are briskly written express urgency, whereas a plethora of adverbs suggest passiveness. It’s an interesting textured illustration, showing how life happens to San. But San wants to make life better for himself. A malleable narrator narrates the story, sometimes recounting the events as they happened, sometimes reflecting on them years later. Her writing is delightfully post-modern which makes this an amazing Korean novel to read!

4. The Prisoner by Hwang Sok-yong

This Korean book was translated by Anton Hur and Sora Kim-Russell

Best Korean Novels - The Prisoner by Hwang Sok-Yong cover

In the Prisoner, Hwang Sok-yong jumps around his life and relates to us his involvement (he was not just a mere spectator) in various historical events in the peninsula. For example, the division of the peninsula, Korea’s participation in the Vietnam War and the Cold War (when Korea went through dictatorships), the inter-Korea reunification talks that happened when Kim Dae-june was president and even the candle light protest in 2016.

Hwang Sok-yong is also very familiar with most writers and poets Korea has ever produced. Some chapters in the Prisoner seem to be an address book indicating where he has met each author.

The chapters in this Korean book that interested me were the ones where he recounts his meetings with Kim Il-sung, the leader of North Korea, his exile, and the discovery of his vocation as a novelist. He had some interesting things to say about the inter-Korean negotiations.

It was an amazing experience reading the Prisoner. It’s fascinating how things started out innocently enough, but then got worse and worse for the writer. It shows the true impact of censorship on artists and stunts creativity. The Prisoner is not just a memoir; it’s also a warning.

5. To the Warm Horizon by Choi Jin-young

Translated by Soje

To the Warm Horizon (온 햇빛은 악몽) is a dystopian, post-apocalyptic novel originally written in Korean, and the first queer novel translated into English.

In To the Warm Horizon an epidemic has broken out overnight. There are 100,000 deaths per day in Korea, and 500,000 the following day, with the virus mutat­ing with every new vaccine.

The world as we know it is collapsing. And this new world isn’t safe, depressing, and illogical—and some people even believe that eating the livers of children will provide immunity.

Translated by Soje, To the Warm Horizon is a literary commentary on the fragility of modern society, how dysfunctionally we live, and the effects of global catastrophe. To the Warm Horizon is told in a succinct way, touching on the essentials without unnecessary embellishment. The kind of writing that I like best, so thanks to Soje for translating this particular tone.

In To the Warm Horizon each chapter tells its own story using five characters, each named after one of them. They have fled from Korea, along with thousands of other refugees, after a viral outbreak has killed many people. The chaos of the virus caused a rise in crime, so life became unbearable. Their arduous journeys through the wilderness and the brutal experiences they undergo create a dystopian scene. Their journeys overlap in both good and bad ways. One of the main characters is Jina, a young woman who falls in love with Dori, another young woman.

To the Warm Horizon has been labelled as queer for this relationship and is one of the only books in Korean literature to feature a gay couple. However, that is only one aspect. Their relationship is handled with delicacy, conveying the gentle wonder and slightly forbidden nature of the characters’ feelings for each other amidst horrific circumstances, rather than focusing heavily on their sexuality. Their love for each other keeps them together, even when they are apart.

Jina and Dori’s love story isn’t an epic, but when put into context of the end of the world, we’re reminded that love is both fragile and resilient, just like humanity.

6. Untold Night and Day by Bae Sua

Translated by Deborah Smith

Best Korean Novels. Best Korean Books.

‘’By the time the heatwave came to an end, nothing remained of the people but ash. They became fused into panes of glass: grey and opaque.’’

Untold Night and Day is a quiet tale of a struggling Korean middle-class youth becomes a disorienting fable of identity, art, and love. At the intersection of Kafka and Murakami, Bae Suah has created her own corner of contemporary Korean literature. She has both a gentle side and a sharp wit, but she also has a high literary power comparable to that of Marquez. She has an incredible way of conveying rich detail, elegant economy of language, vivid characterizations, and dream-like magical realism all at once.

In Untold Night and Day, Five people search the city streets of Seoul for something they can grab onto. A woman, a man, a teacher, a filmmaker, a writer from another country. A group of people who share a common experience of loneliness, unfulfillment and the fear of change.

Who are they? Why are they wandering around a city smothered in an absurdly hot heatwave? There are no birds singing, no colours in the skies, and no wind. A radio turns on and off by itself; blindness and haziness walk together with surreal dreams, apparitions, faces with scars and bloody clothes.

Untold Night and Day is organized like a piece of music. The refrains help us remember the songs, but they also establish certain symbols. These interesting moments show us that the passage of time in our world is not linear. Suah weaves together disparate occurrences in interesting ways—whether it’s an encounter in a theatre, a magical bus ride through town, or the existential dilemma faced by a dreaming poet. Temperature crops up frequently throughout the novel, enhancing the characters’ distorted view with irony, hyperbole and sympathy.

If you aren’t familiar with Sua’s writing style, the aimless or “random” aspect might trick you into thinking this masterful Korean novel is messy. But in fact, Untold Night and Day is an enchanting, mesmerizing, dreamlike experience, a dream of living, where emotion and memory collide.

7. Lemon by Kwon Yeo-sun

This Korean novel was translated by Janet Hong

Best Korean Novels. Best Korean Books.

Kwon Yeo Sun’s novel ‘Lemon’, which is less than 200 pages long, is a gripping exploration of life, gender and privilege in contemporary Seoul. Kim Hae-On was murdered in 2002. Her endearing beauty was blemished by a murderer who remains free today.

Lemon follows Da-on, the younger sister of Hae-on, as she tries to understand her sister’s last moments. We also hear from two of her classmates who were in the same class as her and in the years which followed.

The bitter questions and debates raised about Lemon‘s allure and deliberate detachment from the main events of the story have cemented its status among literary critics as one deeply divisive novel. Kwon Yeo Sun raises uncomfortable questions about the relationship between authors and their readers. How much do storytellers owe to their audiences? Are they justified in keeping us in the dark? Does this make us want to read more or push us away from the page?

Lemon is not a straightforward, chronological story. We discover pieces of the story in fits and starts, and sometimes we don’t know which narrator is telling us the truth. It is not the identity of this killer which makes this book so chilling, but rather the lasting impact this murder has had on these people’s lives as they move forward into 2019.

What made me fall in love with Lemon was its thematic issues, including the privileges and disparities between genders and classes, and the manifestation of grie­f after a brutal trauma. It was amazing how the different voices allowed for the exploration and experimentation of various reactions to loss, while at the same time allowing for experimental narration that took Lemon to the next level!

8. b, Book, and Me by Kim Sagwa

Translated by Sunhee Jeong

Best Korean novels - b, Book, and Me by Kim Sagwa cover

A face as stiff as a boulder, stiff with boredom—
that’s the face of an adult.

Adults don’t think about the ocean
even when they watch it.

Their minds are full of other things.

With its direct, piercing style, Sagwa’s novel b, Book, and me is deftly handled by translator Sunhee Jeong. Fans of Sagwa’s previous translated books will recognize the author’s skill at depicting teenage life: her rendering of youth is unflattering and deeply felt, authentically complicated, weighed down by the world, the whole world, and everyone in it.

The plot in b, Book, and me is pretty simple. b and Rang are best friends. They go to the beach together. They get beaten up by boys wearing baseball caps. They talk about becoming Fish. They live in a city that wishes it were Seoul. The other kids dress just like they’re from Seoul. They drink soft drinks and pretend they’re in Seoul. They dress like Seoul. They dream of living in Seoul. B and Rang don’t care much about Seoul. It all seems rather pathetic, trying to keep pace with Seoul like that.

b is poor. Her sister is sick. Rang is slightly better off. She writes a poem for b, her best friend b doesn’t like it. The friends part ways temporarily. They meet again in the end, where the crazy people and outcasts live, meet a new guy named Book (he introduces them to coffee and his impressive book collection) and they find each other and themselves again.

b, Book, and me is an engaging story that combines the perspectives of two teenage girls. The author blends real-life experiences with fantastical stories to create a wonderful ride of friendship and growing up.

This Korean book was brutal, amazing, but bittersweet.

9. Love in the Big City by Sang Young Park

Translated by Anton Hur

Set in Seoul, Love in the Big City tells the story of its narrator as he grows up over the course of his twenties and thirties.

Love in the Big City is a Korean novel divided into four parts, each of which could conceivably be read as a short story on its own. Love in the Big City introduces the friendship between Park Young and Jaehee, a female college student who, like Young, spends most of her free hours drinking and hooking up.

The two move in and share everything, and their love for each other is palpable. Young keeps Jaehee’ s favorite Marlboro cigarettes in stock and Jaehee buys him frozen blueberries. After years of living together, Jaehee unexpectedly decides to settle down and marry. Young feels betrayed and unanchored, which leads to several ill-fated romances.

Love in the Big City is another of the International Booker 2022 long-listed titles that resonate with me like no other. It’s a story of friendship, love, lust, and navigating all of this in a large city. It’s messy, noisy, and often unpleasant as well – the way all love is supposed to be, but Sang Young Park and Anton Hur give love another dimension – that of painful realisations and temperaments that constantly hang out on the page.

10. My Brilliant Life by Ae-ran Kim

Translated by Chi-young Kim

Best Korean Novels. Best Korean Books. My Brilliant Life by Ae-ran Kim

In My Brilliant Life, Ae-ran Kim writes with a poetic lyricism that flows with the rush and power of a river. It may be slow and steady sometimes, but you are nevertheless propelled forward into unknown waters, regardless of whether you’re moving slowly or quickly.

My Brilliant Life is a story told by Aerum. He has been diagnosed with progeria, a rare genetic disease that causes him to grow rapidly and experience premature aging. Aerum tells us about his parents’ meeting and how they’ve dealt with his declining health since he was diagnosed with progeria when he was just two years old.

It’s all there in My Brilliant Life – from the characters, setting, and narrative to the writing style. As a story that focuses on a terminally ill teen, Kim injects the right amount of heartwarming humor.

This Korean book surprised me and captured my heart! In My Brilliant Life, Ae-ran Kim has taken ordinary moments and made them beautiful through her writing. The result is a moving story full of wit and wisdom, and a powerful reminder to live life fully whatever the circumstances may be.

11. Tower by Bae Myung-hoon

Translated by Sung Ryu

Best Korean Novels. Best Korean Books. Tower by Bae Myung-hoon

Tower is a satirical science fiction novel and was originally published in South Korea in 2009 with this English translation coming out recently.

The text in Tower itself consists of six connected short stories, plus some supplementary material, set in Beanstalk, a 674-floor skyscraper, 2.4 km tall (around five times the height of the current tallest tower in Seoul), home to 500, 000 people, and now a separate country in its own right.

The setting of Beanstalk and the ideas explored by Bae in Tower were so inspiring to me, like the introduction of the idea of tagging expensive alcohol bottles and 3D scanning a building to visualize the flow patterns of electricity. Recurring concepts from this Korean book include the idea of the horizontalist vs the vertical mindset, which has implications for transportation, military operations, politics, and economics.

The writing in Tower flows well and is very witty and humorous even when it tackles some disturbing topics. Tower is a deep read with lots of themes including race relations, political factions, economic warfare, religion, social behaviour, media control, power balances and corporate corruption.

Tower is above everything else deeply human and has made me feel like my heart has been opened up by exploring how we form communities and interact with each other.

12. I’m Waiting For You by Kim Bo-young

Translated by Sophie Bowman and Sung Ryu

Best Korean Novels. Best Korean Books. I'm Waiting For You by Kim Bo-young

Without the will to live, life is meaningless.

I’m Waiting For You is a genuine joy that resonates on every level of emotion and thought. It pulls at the heartstrings as powerfully and deeply as its abstract visions touch the brain.

While technically a collection, there are overarching themes that run through this collection in a way that makes it more than the sum of the individual pieces. These include individuality, power hierarchies (and their effects), assigning meaning to life, the gift of memory, and the role of language in shaping our perceptions of reality.

I’m Waiting For You opens with a letter written by a man who takes a quick lightspeed trip from Earth to arrive back on Earth a short time later (but four Earth years later).

It’s now normal to skip time. Convenient for people who say they need the market to turn round or, like the letter-writer, want to speed up to their wedding while they wait for their fiancé on her several year return journey to earth.

They’re tossed about by fate, but their arrivals are offset and delayed as they skip forward through time. Eventually, economies and nations collapse, and humanity collapses as the story turns into a cosmic horror of survival, loneliness, and desperation adrift in space still trying to find his fiance.

According to the author in her postscript, the story was written for a friend who wanted to use it as part his proposal. It is a good start, where love is established as an emotion to sustain us and gives purpose to what seems like meaninglessness.

Each story in I’m Waiting For You stands firmly on its own, but when combined they form an amazing whole. The interplay of the themes in I’m Waiting For You is unpacked through multiple angles, which keeps us engaged throughout the entire book.

Even when it is a little slow, those moments are so mentally stimulating that your heart races as if you were watching an action movie. While they may be separate stories, the pairs appear to line up, and I’d like to believe that the lover’s story is an excellent example of what Naban meant about a singular life being just as beautiful and valuable as all eternity. I’m Waiting For You is one of the best Korean novels to read this year!

13. The White Book by Han Kang

Translated by Deborah Smith

Best Korean Novels. Best Korean Books. The White Book by Han Kang

“Why do old memories constantly drift to the surface?”

Music is often associated with memory. When I hear a song, I’m often taken back to a time when I was young, to a place where I used to live, to a person who was once special to me, to an experience that will always be lost in the endless stream of life. White is an important colour for Han Kang because it opens up the floodgates to the writer’s imagination and allows her to pour out torrents of memories.

Han Kang is haunted both by her past and by her memories of the dead. She has a certain sense of guilt for having lived when another had not. It hangs over the writing in the White Book, but the author’s conscience forever digs outwards from the back of her mind: it’s a blazing reminder, one that she endures with every single step.

Exploring such an obvious idea as a colour, one that embodies so much to the writer, allows her to explore the darker recesses of her mind, and comes to terms with emotions and experiences that have hung over her all her life.

The beauty of the clouds, the mystery of the mist. Our white blood cells, these God-given marvels that construct our very being. So strong and yet so frail. The white of a mother’s milk, the very essence of life that keeps us alive when our bodies need it most.

The White Book is a powerful evocation of the human spirit and of human suffering, but it‘s also a book about living with our demons and our darkest experiences. The White Book is a book for living, and it’s also a book about dying: It’s a book about the small bit of stark white that separates the two.

14. The Plotters by Un-su Kim

Translated by Sora Kim-Russell

Best Korean Novels. Best Korean Books. The Plotters by Un-su Kim

The Plotters takes place in a futuristic Seoul where an elite group of politicians and corporate executives conspire to kill people. They may select their targets as their enemies or simply inconvenient ones.

Our main character in The Plotters, Reseng, is a 32-year old hitman who reads a lot. He never had much chance at a different career path. He was raised by the nuns until age 4, then adopted by an old man who trained him in the art of assassination. Raised in an enormous library that doubles as a cover for the real business of assassination for cash.

“When a request comes in, they draw up the plan.”

In The Plotters there’s always someone above them telling them what to do. And above that person is another person who tells him what to do.

One day, Reseng was walking down the street only afraid of the police. Next, he realizes that the different assassins in and around Seoul are now actively trying to kill each other, so he’s now become an active target. We’re in a rush to the end. He meets many characters along the way, but his most memorable encounter is with the barber.

Set in the murky world of hired assassins in Korea, this Korean novel has some pretty exciting scenes. And the thoughts of the many inhabitants of the aforementioned society are poetic. The page-turner novel is alive and well. But it is no accident that it is fresh, realistic, and Korean. The Plotters is a Korean book worth reading.

15. The Hole by Hye-young Pyun

Translated by Sora Kim-Russell

Best Korean Novels. Best Korean Books. The Hole by Hye-young Pyun

It was an amazing experience reading this Korean book – the Hole by Hye-young Pyun. From beginning to end, the story in the Hole is so uncomfortable, and the characters are so compelling that you just don’t know what else will happen next.

Oghi who used to be a cartographer and a professor is left a broken man by a serious car accident that killed his wife. He is left at the mercy and care of his mother in law who on the surface takes care of his needs but she also appears to have an ulterior motive.

What really got me was the details of a person’s life and career, the things that push them to get angry, jealous and go off their path. The description of being 40 years old and living that decade based upon what you’ve accomplished (and haven’t) was well written.

The staggering loneliness of an adult man; the suddenness in which everything loses its meaning and how you awake one day seeing the remains of your life; the nuances between relationships – wife, friend, colleague – they’re all carefully crafted and detailed within less than 200 pages.

It was the descriptions of what made us human in the Hole that I found most compelling. There’s plenty in that to worry about.

The horrors that we encounter are in our everyday lives, and the monsters that are created sometimes begin within ourselves, and sometimes close to us, which haunt us forever. The Hole is one Korean book that you must pick up today!

16. The Court Dancer by Kyung-Sook Shin

Translated by Anton Hur

Best Korean Novels. Best Korean Books. The Court Dance by Kyung-Sook Shin

Wow! The Court Dancer is an excellent historical fiction that takes readers to 19th century Korea.

Being loved by the Queen as though she were her own daughter, Yi Jin grows up into a court dancer and becomes one of the most beautiful girls serving the Queen.

Victor Collin de Poulney is the French Consul General in Korea. He was sent there to supervise and ensure communication between France and Korea. He falls in love at first sight when he sees Yi Jin for the first time and asks the king to marry her and take Yi Jin home with him to France.

Yi Jin has been studying French for years, so she is happy to accept Victor’s request.

Even though she is fascinated by everything she sees in Europe, her heart still lingers back at home in Joseon, and it’s hard for her to leave the Queen and all of her loved ones behind.

She’s so homesick that she starts sleepwalking, and Victor takes her back to Joseon to cure her disease. But once there, she realizes that she doesn’t want to leave again.

A series of tragic accidents occur and Yi Jin loses everything she has. The end is for you to discover.

The Court Dancer is a beautifully written portrayal of the life away from home, of the love for two people of different cultures, and the loyalty towards one person you love as your own. If you love historical fiction and Korean novels, then this book is for you!

17. Endless Blue Sky by Lee Hyoseok

Translated by Stephen D. Capener

Best Korean Novels. Best Korean Books. Endless Blue Sky by Lee Hyoseok

Endless Blue Sky takes place during the 1940s in colonial Korea and Japanese-controlled Manchuria. It tells the story of an unlikely romance between a Korean writer and a Russian cabaret performer. Endless Blue Sky is an exciting drama with a hint of Korean soaps and a wide range of diverse characters.

First of all, I was amazed at how Hyoseok painted such a colourful picture of the cultural differences between Joseon and Harbin. He touched on the lives of Russian refugee families and the Russian architectural influence in Harben, the influence of French movies and Western musical composers on the society, as well the rich appreciation in the media industry (movies, songs, novels etc.). Indeed, I’ve learned a lot. Googling maps of where each city is, looking at old photographs of the towns, the buildings mentioned, etc. Endless Blue Sky is so interesting!

The writing in Endless Blue Sky is poignant and philosophical, yet still easy to read! It has a certain kind of charm reminiscent of some classic novels, such as Far from the Madder Crowd or Brideshead Revisited.

Endless Blue Sky is also filled with philosophical ideas on love, marriage, adversity, ambition, and fulfillment. It was surprising to see how pro-European and advanced the ideologies presented by HyoSeok were. Despite most of the female characters having questionable morals earlier in the book, they all exhibit very strong values of proto-feminist ideals. As a Koren novel, Endless Blue Sky was way ahead of its time.

18. City of Ash and Red by Hye-young Pyun

This Korean Novel was translated by Sora Kim-Russell

Best Korean Novels. Best Korean Books. City of Ash and Red by Hye-young Pyun

“And he grew unhappy at the thought that he might never again run his fingers along the fine grain of ordinary everyday life.”

We have a pandemic in the City of Ash and Red. It’s a quiet killer, but a deadly one nonetheless. Our main character, whose name we don’t know, is promoted, but his promotion takes him to a country plagued by disease – a country he doesn’t know and can barely speak the local language.

Once there, he finds out that his ex-wife has been murdered and he is the prime suspect.

What we have here in City of Ash and Red isn’t an actual murder mystery. Instead, as our unnamed character escapes into the city and encounters an apocalyptic wasteland, we have a bleak, horrifying apocalypse—and the story of a lost, unfamiliar stranger who has no idea what to expect and must deal with horrors beyond belief.

City of Ash and Red is a disgusting book—literally. The setting, the mood, and the main character are all literally disgusting. It’s an odd feeling to read something that makes you want to hate it but is still compulsively readable. The translation is excellent and the plot is compelling. 

19. At Dusk by Hwang Sok-young

Translated by Sora Kim-Russell

Best Korean Novels. Best Korean Books. At Dusk by Hwang Sok-young

At Dusk is a political examination of life in South Korea from the perspective of two characters in the novel: Minwoo, a successful architect who has risen from poverty, and Woohee, a struggling playwright. As the story unfolds you discover the connection between the two characters. At Dusk is a deeply nihilistic, deeply melancholic story.

In At Dusk Park Minwoo grew up in a poor neighbourhood surrounded by poverty and gangs but went on to become a successful architect.

Parallel to this is Jung Woohee, a 29-year-old playwright and director, who struggles to earn a living by doing the night shift at a 7-Eleven store while trying to realize her artistic ambitions.

What’s interesting about these two stories is how they intertwine to say a lot more about how our values and wants can become so twisted over time. As we strive to create a better life for ourselves and our families, we become enmeshed in society’s progress, which has a way of erasing history and people who fall behind. At Dusk says something profound about how our collective and individual values change over time.

Before reading At Dusk I think it would be helpful to know a little bit more about Japan’s occupation of South Korea from 1910 to 1945 and the Korean War from 1950 to 1953. If you compare South Korean culture today with how it was in the past, you would be amazed at the rapid modernization.

It’s a bitterswee­t affair because, for some of these older people, the only traces of the past are now in their fading memory.

20. Catcalling by Lee Soho

Korean Poetry Book translated by Soje

Best Korean Novels. Best Korean Books. Catcalling by Lee Soho

I opened some quote marks
And cried only in your sentences.

Catcalling by South Korean poet Lee Sohoz is an award-winning collection that shakes up readers and society in order to reveal hard truths.

Catcalling is a dark and often distressing collection of poems and experimental prose that feels quite intimate in its stream-­of-­consciousness style, often emphasizing the tightrope walk ­between confessional and close-­guarded secrets of her own words.

Soho writes this Korean book to show how families and relations can look good on paper, but have a hidden barrage that silences women to maintain the facade.

Catcalling takes a bold look at the various forms of catcalling in our society and the dark undercurrents of them. Domestic abuse, rape, affairs, and other forms of misogyny pervade the poems, with the speakers reacting to these assaults in real-time. The responses come from different sources, including children’s sing song-like rambles and one long play about an 1887 London case where a businessman was unjustly acquitted for rape.

The five sections in Catcalling cover a speaker from childhood with her sister through adulthood into a dysfunctional relationship. This structure shows abuse as something that can resonate throughout generations, with an abusive father, an unfaithful husband, and then an abusive grandfather. It also shows how women are expected to be objects in the family rather than people with feelings.

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A.J. McMahon

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GoodReads: A.J. McMahon

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