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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Familiar Things

Hwang Sok-yong

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To purchase Familiar Things

Title: Familiar Things
Author: Hwang Sok-yong
Genre: Novel
Written: 2011 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 216 pages
Original in: Korean
Availability: Familiar Things - US
Familiar Things - UK
Familiar Things - Canada
Toutes les choses de notre vie - France
Todas las cosas de nuestra vida - España
  • Korean title: 낯익은 세상
  • Translated by Sora Kim-Russell

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Our Assessment:

B : fine small novel of South Korea around 1980

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 9/6/2017 Alice Franklin
The Guardian . 30/6/2017 Krys Lee

  From the Reviews:
  • "Featuring large doses of fantasy, Familiar Things is also a vivid depiction of a city too quick to throw away both possessions and people." - Alice Franklin, Financial Times

  • "The landfill exists alongside a fantastic world from an earlier period of Flower Island, a phantasmagoria of beauty and nature to which the two boys can escape. (...) Hwang has a keen interest in invisible societies, and he does not condescend or pity them. The novelís most impassioned passages depict garbage as a social phenomenon, the visible evidence of capitalism. (...) Familiar Things is not particularly notable for vividly rendered detail, singular language or voice. But the measure of a novel is not only its artful telling, but also the power and value of the story being told." - Krys Lee, The Guardian

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Familiar Things begins with thirteen-year-old Bugeye and his mother starting a new life, in a place that doesn't quite live up to its idyllic name, Flower Island. Flower Island is a massive city landfill, and Bugeye's mother is offered a job on one of the scavenging crews that go through every day's garbage and salvages whatever is reusable, which is then collected and sold. While the smell is overwhelming -- "a vile combination of every bad odour in the world" -- it is a small metropolis in its own right, "six thousand people living in two thousand household".
       It is Baron Ashura, one of the leaders of a crew, that brings Bugeye's mother into the fold, while Bugeye becomes good friends with the Baron's son, a boy around his age called Baldspot. With Bugeye's father: "in that re-education camp or whatever it was, which claimed it turned people into new people before sending them out into the world", his mother soon shacks up with the Baron and they form a small family. When the Baron is eventually also jailed (not for a political crime), Bugeye's mother successfully assumes his leadership-role, and together with a pile of cash they find in the trash the family's prospects look better. The dangerous environment, however, makes escape difficult: if not swallowed whole by it, its hold makes it, and its awful conditions, almost inescapable.
       Among the episodes in the novel is one where Bugeye and Baldspot do briefly escape, taking some of the money they found for an expedition into the city proper. Just how extreme the separation between worlds is is made clear by what they go through in getting there: the stench of the garbage clings to them and their clothes so badly that it's almost unbearable to share a bus with them, and Bugeye knows that if they want to do anything they have to get completely cleaned up -- not only bathed but changed into new clothes, right down to their underwear. Amusingly, their old clothes that they scavenged from the garbage are thrown away -- and so they will inevitably wind up back on Flower Island, and perhaps be worn yet again .....
       Bugeye isn't entirely a fish out of water in the big city -- he still remembers it from when he was a younger boy and his mother worked in one of the local markets, and he knows his way around -- but it's something quite novel for Baldspot. The cash they have does ensure they get treated okay -- though Baldspot is easily identifiable as not belonging, and needs the more worldly Bugeye to bail him out. Tellingly, too, it's only here, in the outside, real world that the boys reveal and use their actual names:

     To his own surprise, Bugeye found himself blurting out his old name.
     'Jeong-ho. Choi Jeong-ho.'
       There's also a fantastical element to Familiar Things, the old Flower Island, before it was a garbage dump, emerging for the boys, an encounter with the past -- and its ghosts -- that makes for a different sort of escape for them. Even under all the garbage, a bit of history shows through -- eerie ("'We just saw a ghost, right ?' Bugeye muttered") and yet also readily accepted. The past, Hwang suggests, is never completely lost and still casts its shadows over the present.
       Focusing on the boys, and especially Bugeye, allows for a perspective that is still relatively innocent and takes the world -- regardless how absurd, grim, or fantastical it appears -- as is. For the boys, the ghosts of the past and the Christmas-decorated big city are equally out of the ordinary, and they readily adapt to both. As children, their outsider status is more natural and less oppressive -- the two boys are close and rely mainly on each other, with only a looser connection to other local boys, ghosts, and their parents. Adult issues affect them -- from Bugeye's father having been taken away to his mother and the Baron shacking up -- but remain largely mysterious, while political issues, including bureaucratic ones about the way the landfill operates, are addressed but not ones they have any influence over.
       Familiar Things is set during a time of rapid South Korean economic development and harsh political repression. It's hard to pinpoint the exact time -- Hwang remains intentionally vague about it -- but the fact that Bugeye's father is sent to a re-education camp would place it around 1981. (Annoyingly, other cultural markers don't quite fit: there's mention of the movie Star Wars (which premiered in South Korea in the summer of 1978), while the boys buy what appears to be a Gameboy, on which one can play a game "called Super Mario", but the original Super Mario Bros. was only released in 1985, and the first handheld way to play it, the Gameboy, debuted in 1989.)
       Much of the rapidly changing world beyond the landfill is reflected in the garbage that is dumped here -- with the US military garbage the most prized because the wasteful Americans toss out the best things -- including perfectly good food, just because it's past its expiration date. Modernization, after a fashion, eventually begins to come to Flower Island too, at the conclusion of the book -- but only after catastrophe strikes. The authorities remain largely out of sight and only influence some of the larger structures -- playing a similar role that the adult-world does to the children.
       Familiar Things is a fine little novel, showing a crushing, grim reality in which the resilient human spirit and imagination makes do. It seems a bit of an odd novel for Hwang to have written in 2011, revisiting that specific earlier era in South Korean history, but it's appealingly creative in its shifts between the real and fantastical.

- M.A.Orthofer, 10 May 2018

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Familiar Things: Reviews: Other books by Hwang Sok-yong under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Korean literature

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About the Author:

       Hwang Sok-Yong (황석영) was born in 1943. He is a leading Korean writer.

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© 2018-2021 the complete review

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