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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

At Dusk

Hwang Sok-yong

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase At Dusk

Title: At Dusk
Author: Hwang Sok-yong
Genre: Novel
Written: 2015 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 188 pages
Original in: Korean
Availability: At Dusk - US
At Dusk - UK
At Dusk - Canada
Au soleil couchant - France
  • Korean title: 해질 무렵
  • Translated by Sora Kim-Russell

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Our Assessment:

B : fine picture of a changing South Korea

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Irish Times . 15/12/2018 Declan O'Driscoll
The Observer . 25/11/2018 Ben East

  From the Reviews:
  • "It’s a regretful, bittersweet exploration of modernisation, which picks away at the country’s past and present, slowly becoming a moving reflection of what we gain and lose as individuals and a society in the name of progress. (...) Their tales converge in ways that would be the stuff of soap opera if it were not for the spare prose; Sora Kim-Russell’s translation becomes a real virtue as the build-up of anecdotes and memories from Minwoo’s past gradually layer into a powerful yet modest and profound meditation on personal responsibility and what a fulfilled life might mean." - Ben East, The Observer

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:

       The chapters in At Dusk alternate between two narrators. The first is Park Minwoo, a successful architect who escaped growing up in straitened circumstances and rode good connections, a foreign education, and the South Korean building boom to comfortable success. The other is twenty-nine-year-old Jung Woohee a would-be theater professional who is in the final stages of preparing for the opening of the play which she adapted the script for and which she is directing (neither of which, however, she gets paid for). While Minwoo is obviously materially well off, Woohee is behind on her rent, and makes ends meet by working the graveyard shift at a convenience store.
       Neither of them has much of a family or personal life; outside their professional (and amateur-theatrical) spheres they are largely solitary beings. Minwoo is married, but, if not exactly estranged from his wife, there's barely anything left of a relationship: she lives comfortably in the United States, close to their daughter, who is a doctor. Minwoo is in touch with them, but they're very much long-distance relationships. Focused on her work, Woohee barely has the time or energy for anyone else.
       The novel opens with Minwoo being reminded of the past -- in various ways, but specifically also by the name Cha Soona, a beautiful girl from his old neighborhood, where he grew up in a family that earned its money making fishcakes, while she was the daughter of a noodle-maker. Soona and he were the only two teens in the entire neighborhood who attended high school -- aware that education was likely the only way out for them. As the book progresses, Minwoo's narrative retraces his life in the slum -- and his escape from it. As a youth, for a long time he barely dared look at Soona, but eventually they did become somewhat closer. When Minwoo gets into university, he leaves most of his slum-life behind him. Tutoring a general's son -- and living with that family --, doing his mandatory military service, then getting the remarkable opportunity to study abroad (and letting himself be fixed up with the woman who would become his wife), he makes his way, through hard work and a decent bit of luck.
       He largely loses touch with Soona after he starts his studies -- but not entirely. But only when he hears from her again, now all these many decades later, does he think back to that old life. There are other reminders too, including encroaching mortality, of old friends and colleagues, as well as the shaking of some foundations, such as the news of legal troubles for Daedong Construction, a firm for which his architectural firm drew up plans. Not exactly nostalgic, Minwoo's narrative is a deep dive into the rough years of growing up in that hardscrabble neighborhood -- and the transitions in South Korean life and society over those years, including his friendship with some of the toughs from the neighborhood and how they settled their disputes and established themselves (and were undermined). Only slowly does he reveal more of Soona's story, a trajectory that, despite her being studious, was not nearly as successful as his; he (and the reader) also eventually learn more of the tragedies she faced then and since.
       Woohee is of an entirely different generation, trying to gain a foothold in a commercialized South Korea. Her story long seems an almost entirely different one, of just getting by in irregular jobs while pursuing her passion. The play she is involved with isn't very central here -- just another thing keeping her busy --, while she at least finds some support elsewhere: the landlord not being too fussy about the back rent, and at least one supportive and helpful friend.
       Naturally, there is a connection between the two very different narratives and characters; unsurprisingly, Cha Soona also turns out to be part of that. Melancholily-tinged, it's reasonably cleverly done by Hwang -- and leaves just enough questions open.
       At Dusk effectively presents the rapid change of South Korean life and society, with Minwoo covering decades of change -- and both those who were successful, and those got left behind or fell by the wayside along the way -- while Woohee's story is more limited to the near-present-day. The episodes from their lives that are highlighted -- some barely more than incidental-seeming -- work well, as Hwang mostly doesn't force the issues too much. It makes for a solid portrait of changing times and society, with a number of strong characters as examples, most notably the two very different narrators.

- M.A.Orthofer, 2 March 2019

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At Dusk: 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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© 2019-2021 the complete review

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