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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


No One Writes Back

Jang Eun-jin

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To purchase No One Writes Back

Title: No One Writes Back
Author: Jang Eun-jin
Genre: Novel
Written: 2009 (Eng. 2013)
Length: 203 pages
Original in: Korean
Availability: No One Writes Back - US
No One Writes Back - UK
No One Writes Back - Canada
No One Writes Back - India
  • Korean title: 아무 도 편지 하지 않다
  • Translated by Jung Yewon

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Our Assessment:

A- : affecting novel of human connections

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian A 19/11/2013 Nicholas Lezard
TLS . 18/4/2014 Mark Morris

  From the Reviews:
  • "This is an extraordinarily rich and moving novel, which could happily garner a very wide audience. The story it tells is not specifically Korean, or not to the point where we might feel confused. It's urban, universally so: a story of alienation told in a manner that does not feel sorry for itself, but goes about its business in an odd but determined way. (...) All I can say, in a rather dazed fashion, is read it -- you'll love it." - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

  • "Jang Eun-jinís sentimental ending is fitting: it seems powered by exactly the sort of commercial tactics criticized by 751." - Mark Morris, Times Literary Supplement

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 premise of No One Writes Back is set out in its opening sentences, the narrator, Jihun, explaining:

I left home with an MP3 player and a novel in an old backpack. And with Wajo.
       But No One Writes Back is less road-novel than end-of-the road novel: he's been at this for three years already, and the novel follows only the few last stops of what has been a long voyage (with a bit of recollection, presenting who and what he has encountered along the way).
       After the two introductory sentences, the novel then proceeds in short, numbered chapters (or episodes) -- 152 of them -- in which Jihun describes his final peregrinations with Wajo (his blind dog).
       The reasons for his wanderings are only slowly revealed, but, unsurprisingly, one gets a sense he's looking for something. Very early on he hints at some of the surrounding issues:
     I had to give up or set aside many things to come on this journey: home, family, friends, a job, and love. In the first place this journey wasn't meant as a means to gain something. I embarked on the journey to rid myself of things, and it could only really begin when I did so. Still, thereís probably a bit of something I hope to have gained by the end of the journey. If there is, itís probably something like quiet stability.
       Obviously, being on the road, and going from motel to motel is not the way to get "quiet stability". As to what he wanted to get rid of, that's not made clear (until the end, when all the pieces fall into place). His trek, and how he explains it, has the appearance of a sort of pilgrimage, leaving behind worldly things and human ties, but it's clear that there's more to it than that. Indeed, he seeks out connection -- and admits that: "for me, letters are daily necessities", as his daily routine includes writing a letter. He compares his letter-writing to journal-keeping -- the same kind recording of his day: "The only difference is that the day does not stay with me, but is sent to someone else"
       So Jihun is literally reaching out daily -- yet he's still wandering about alone (well, with the blind dog).
       Over the course of his travels he has met thousands of people. He doesn't refer to them by name -- too personal a connection ? -- but rather only by number. (He's also good with numbers, and it's easy for him to remember them this way -- i.e. the numerical designation in no way makes them more anonymous (though it is certainly impersonal).) [It is also worth noting that there are only about 250 Korean family names in general usage, and almost half of Koreans are named either Kim, Lee, or Park [see also] -- so names are not quite the unique identifiers they can be in other cultures.] He has asked many of them for their addresses, and while many react with some suspicion when he does so as to his possibly ulterior motive, hundreds have given him their address -- or, as he admits is also possible, made one up for his benefit.
       Jihun writes letters to his family, but he also writes to these people he met along the way -- and asks them to reply. Another part of his daily routine is to call a friend of his back home, whom he has asked to keep an eye on his mailbox, asking whether any mail has come for him. As the novel's title suggests, Jihun has been rather disappointed because, even after three years ... well, it seems no one ever writes back.
       As he explains:
I myself hadnít thought that this journey would last so long. Iíd expected it would take a month or two, at most. Itís all because of letters that the journey has become so prolonged. Iíd planned to return home, if only to read the letters that came for me, and to write back. But sadly, not a single letter has come for me yet. So there was no reason yet for me to go home. I refused to give in after a while, thinking, letís see who wins, which was partly the reason why I had come this far.
       In No One Writes Back he encounters a young woman novelist (such as the author of this book ...) who goes around trying to hand-sell her latest novel while she works on the next one. She, too, has embraced the itinerant lifestyle -- and claims she'd go around hand-selling her books even if she achieved greater success and bookstores displayed her work: "I just like to go around meeting people". She's a laptop-toting, e-mail-using writer who is also on a quest of sorts -- essentially, for material for her book(s). Jihun isn't entirely pleased by her attentions, but they wind up travelling more or less together, learning about each other along the way.
       As they move on in their journey, Jihun reveals more about himself: the job he left behind (he was a mailman ...), the siblings he writes to -- his brother was a super-star-student (he: "got the highest score nationwide on the prep test, as if it were the most natural thing in the world"), his sister, who was so dissatisfied with the way she looked that she tried to completely recreate herself (and eradicate all traces of the way she looked in the past).
       As his number-fixation suggests -- his new companion remains 'the woman' or '751' to him throughout -- Jihun does seem to have some issues with the truly personal. It sure sounds like he's been burned and hurt:
     The reason why I like numbers is because numbers, at least, donít lie. They have a clear, definite, sure answer. They donít make you suspect anything else. Thatís why I have a habit of reducing everything to a number and calling it by that number. Something thatís been reduced to a number can never be forgotten. Things that canít be forgotten donít betray or lie, at least not while they remain unforgotten. If people can call everything by a number or explain everything through a number like I do, there will be no misunderstanding or misperception.
       Jihun remains fairly vague about what set him off on his journey, but the complex situation with his ex-girlfriend certainly played a role, and a major step in him being able to return home is when he and the novelist run into the ex. Jihun tries -- not surprisingly -- to run away, but they do sit down and talk, a necessary confrontation for him, that then also allows him to take the next big step and face what's really been haunting him.
       The limbo of just sending out letters but never receiving any in return -- suggesting that his accounts of his days go simply into a void -- weighs heavily on Jihun. He does then, however, decide to finally go home, despite not having gotten the answers (meaning literally any responses) he wanted. Nominally it is old and ailing Wajo's needs that provide the excuse, but his travels, and his days spent in the company of the novelist have also prepared him him for what he faces there.
       No One Writes Back is, in no small part, manipulative -- dropping some hints along the way but not really providing any warning for the sledgehammer blows with which it then batters the reader, rendering them all the more powerful. Yes, parts of this are even outright sappy -- but it's a mark of Jang's manipulative talents that she can get away with this, that it works, and works well, making for a work that packs a hell of a final punch while also making the rest more resonant. Sure, it's all almost too unbelievably tidy and neat, but all of this is really quite well done, justifying even that.
       For those who pay (too) close attention to who publishes a book, it's worth noting that this is not the stereotypical 'Dalkey' book -- not even close. This is a popular crowd-pleaser (though, yes, with a pretty decent literary standard, too -- it's sentimental, but not fluff) and it's surprising not to see it published by a bigger, more popular-literature-oriented house (some acquiring editors dropped the ball here, big time); one hopes that it nevertheless reaches its audience.

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 November 2013

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No One Writes Back: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       South Korean author Jang Eun-jin (장 은진) was born in 1976.

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© 2013-2014 the complete review

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