Whale by Cheon Myeong-Kwan

WHALE by CHEON MYEONG-KWAN, translated from the Korean by KIM CHI-YOUNG

Shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2023, Whale begins with:

“Chunhui – or Girl of Spring – was the name of the female brickmaker later celebrated as the Red Brick Queen on being discovered by the architect of the grand theater. She was born one winter in a stable to a beggar-woman, as the war was winding down. She was already seven kilos when she emerged and plumped up to more than a hundred kilos by the time she turned fourteen. Unable to speak, she grew up isolated in her own world. She learned everything about brickmaking from Mun, her stepfather. When the inferno killed eight hundred souls, Chunhui was charged with arson, imprisoned and tortured. After many long years in prison, she returned to the brickyard. She was twenty-seven.”

So it begins. But after this first chapter on Chunhui, the author takes us back in time, long before Chunhui is born, to the story of an “old crone”. The author hints, “maybe this whole story is a single tale of revenge – who really knows?”

Cheong unveils so much in the first paragraph that the rest of the story is about the journey towards Chunhui. What happened to Chunhui? Why is she a brick maker? And prison? It does take quite a while for the story to get to her, but it is a thoroughly fascinating and entertaining journey there.

While reading this book, I thought of the movie The Greatest Showman. I think because there was something circus-like, or maybe carnival-like about this story, with its many eccentric and unique characters, like the one-eyes woman with the bees and Jumbo, the elephant. But while it’s told with a playful voice, there’s so much darkness in this story. It is often brutal – rape and abuse is casually mixed into the narrative.

Unsettling and strange, Whale is a kind of modern folk tale. It is cinematic and dramatic, violent and grotesque. Its playful storytelling and cast of colourful characters draw readers in, devouring the pages at a feverish pace, until you emerge breathless. Is it from lack of sleep? Or is it from this intense, chaotic read?


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