Title: Flowers of Mold (original title 옆집 여자)
Writer: Ha Seong-Nan (tr. by Janet Hong)
Publishing House: Open Letter
Date of Publication: April 23rd 2019 (first published 1999)
Rating: 5 stars
‘’Teacher, I want to fly, but the ground keeps pulling me down.’’
Korean Literature is rapidly flourishing thanks to a plethora of wonderful women whose work is finally presented to us through excellent translations. They are unique in connecting the daily reality to a hazy world that lies beneath the surface, resulting in an almost hallucinatory marriage that presents all the right challenges for the readers. Flowers of Mold captivates with its title and binds us to an array of stories that will hypnotize and confuse us in the finest manner possible. For what is a perfect read if not challenging?
Through daily situations, the working environment, the family, the educational process, characters of all ages, women and men discover that darkness is lurking. We, the readers, are faced with an almost overwhelming uncertainty developed within the heavy atmosphere of the ten stories. What could go wrong with a girl who wants to fly, a salesman who falls in love, a new neighbour who is as kind as can be? What could be of interest in the lives of ordinary people with ordinary jobs in ordinary situations?
In the ten stories that unite the surreal with the unsettling, the ordinary with the shock, the answer to these questions is one: everything!
Waxen Wings: A girl desires to fly and tries just about everything. Gymnastics, hang gliding, her life is full of orders and personal struggle. An extremely powerful story of the strength of the human spirit and the misfortunes that define our lives.
Nightmare: A young woman is put into grave danger by the filthy so-called ‘’workers’’ hired by her father. Plagued by nightmares that veer between reality and hallucinations, she decides to take matters into her own hands and face the beasts.
The Retreat: A story of family obligations, ageing and drinking.
‘’According to him, my head’s stuck in the clouds. That’s why I’m always floating around in space, never touching solid ground.’’
The Woman Next Door: One more heinous husband who looks down on his wife. A ‘’man’’ who believes that any unmarried woman over twenty is a whore. One more woman who desperately needs to escape the mundane reality of a psychologically abusive marriage. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. I’d rather die than find myself married in Korea or Japan or any other country in South-East Asia, excuse me.
‘’The power went out late last night, at ten past midnight. While people were still sleeping, the electrical appliances stopped working. The children who woke were cranky; they missed the hum of the refrigerator and the whir of the fan, sounds as comforting to them as a lullaby. Housewives who opened the refrigerator to prepare breakfast found blood dripping from the frozen pork they’d left to thaw, the meat turned a dark red.’’
Flag: The strange findings on an electric pole lead back to a young man’s dreams and disappointments.
Flowers of Mold: Is it possible to find beauty in the dirt? Is it possible for flowers to grow from rubbish?
Early Beans: This story of the fuss and mess between a man and a woman made absolutely no sense to me. I failed to see how this connected to the rest of the collection, it seemed the product of a different writer.
Onion: Possibly the darkest, strangest and most fascinating story in the collection. A tale where a woman who works in a daycare centre and a man who owns a restaurant try to make sense of the lot life threw in their way. Brilliant, mind-bending, disturbing.
‘’Not just anyone can become a magician’s assistant. It only works between a father and daughter, brother and sister, or husband and wife. Or lovers.’’