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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Kim Sagwa

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

To purchase Mina

Title: Mina
Author: Kim Sagwa
Genre: Novel
Written: 2008 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 237 pages
Original in: Korean
Availability: Mina - US
Mina - UK
Mina - Canada
  • Korean title: 미나
  • Translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton

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Our Assessment:

B : fairly effective teenage crack up tale

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 20/8/2018 .
World Lit. Today . Winter/2019 Bridey Heing

  From the Reviews:
  • "As a writer, Kim is wordy and specific, sometimes too concerned with the minutiae of an interaction and drawing attention away from the story at large. But as a cartographer and guide of the teenage experience, she is an expert, crafting an unsettling, deeply felt, and ultimately devastating depiction of the turmoil of youth." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Unflinching and gripping, Sagwa has created an emotionally challenging portrait of what being a teenage girl means in a world where value is tied to measurable achievement." - Bridey Heing, World Literature Today

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 title character of Mina is an important figure, but the central one in the novel is classmate and friend Crystal -- whose life is defined, in no small part, by her relationship with Mina, and Mina's brother, Minho.
       Mina is a novel of teenage life in contemporary South Korea, facing the usual great social and academic pressures. Parents remain almost entirely unseen here: beyond some phone conversations, the kids avoid almost any personal interaction with their parents, and the parents are conveniently not around, or out of sight, asleep, when the kids are home. Academic demands are high, and a great deal of time is spent in the necessary cram schools they all attend in addition to regular school (a system condemned from the start, blamed on local: "P City's broken public education system"). The families are comfortably well-off -- though in the case of Mina and Minho's, they only entered the ranks of this social class when the father, a not particularly successful "translator and fiction writer" (with all of one published story collection under his belt) won the lottery, and they invested the money well (not that they don't still have financial worries).
       As Kim describes it:

Consuming and wasteful, crude and violent, leaving their surroundings barren and desolate -- this is the life of the students in a city
       It is too much for another of Mina's friends, Pak Chiye, who Mina had been close to since kindergarten but whom she had lost touch with a bit since her father won the jackpot three years earlier and they moved into Crystal's family's world. At the start of the novel, Chiye had simply: "studied till one in the morning then went up on the roof and jumped", leaving no note.
       Chiye had texted Mina that she was going to kill herself, but Mina had not been able to reply immediately; afterwards, she understandably finds it hard to process what happened. She skips school, stays out of touch, and eventually even changes schools; Mina is divided into two parts, marked more or less by the break of Mina changing tracks -- which is also a break of sorts from her relationship with Crystal.
       Mina has always displayed some eccentric behavior -- notably that: "she periodically goes into a closet and doesn't come out till her MP3 player's battery dies". Escapism -- a retreat from reality and the world -- can't get much more obvious, but it's also revealing that Crystal, curious about why Mina does this, doesn't get it when she tries it out for herself. Mina manages to retreat to some safety, when necessary, but Crystal is too completely immersed in life as it is to step back and away like this -- though she would clearly (increasingly clearly ...) also need an escape valve of this sort.
       Crystal hasn't exactly bought into the system, but it's what propels her. She dedicates herself to what's expected, excelling at school, and:
She's a model child who humbly accepts that which she's ignorant of and bows to the knowledge of grown-ups -- or at least she pretends to. She never really learns anything. To camouflage her lack of learning she processes the grown-ups' instructions verbatim and is quick to adapt and mimic.
       She is: "pure and undeniably perfect" -- but only superficially, on the fragile surface. She's vaguely aware that not all is right, and so:
She always tries not to think too much. Because she knows if she looks deep down into her memories and sees the shame and humiliation, she'll wind up killing herself like Chiye. She has to learn to look away from unnecessary thoughts at all costs.
       Predictably, this does not turn out to be a healthy form of denial.
       Crystal has had numerous boyfriends, but hasn't managed any sort of deep, lasting relationship. This sort of human connection still baffles her:
It's tacky. It's useless. Do I have to fall in love ? Just give me some romance comics -- they have everything I need to know about loving someone ... to hell with all that.
       Instead of simply falling in love, it too is something she has to set her mind to -- as when, when she learns Minho broke up with his girlfriend (and her relationship with Mina has grown rockier), she announces:
I'm going to fall in love with him, starting now. I just decided.
       Mina is able to articulate her frustration, and vent -- and recognizes that Crystal isn't:
Cram school, home, school, test, school, cram school, homework, tutor, cram school, home, tutor, cram school, home, school, home, school, back to cram school, back to tutor, back for a test back to homework back to school back to school back to school. Home. Cram school. How can anyone think this is normal ? It's crazy. Everyone's crazy. I can't stand it. Not anymore ! I can't stand this life. This hell. It's hell, Hell Chosŏn ! Our society is hell ! That's why Chiye killed herself. I get it. But you don't, do you ? I can understand it, and that's the difference between you and me. It's because of people like you that Chiye killed herself. You're a killer.
       And Kim makes that point very explicit as the story unfolds.
       Essentially, Mina chronicles Crystal's complete mental breakdown -- one that accelerates in the second half of the novel, especially when she no longer has a healthy relationship with Mina. Becoming almost manic, Crystal's obsessive behavior veers to the self-destructive but also to the simply destructive; as representative of this society gone mad she is, indeed, not one who withdraws into killing herself, but instead lashes out. She maintains some control -- there's an eery rationality to her, and to how she tries to analyze some of her own actions -- but she has essentially lost it.
       Crystal does crave normality -- complaining: "Why is everything in the world complicated ? Why can't it be simple ? I'm simple. You're simple. But this world is complicated" -- but is incapable of adjusting so as to avoid the fallout that is crushing her. Knowing she can't go on with the way things are, Mina changes schools and looks to find some hold, but Crystal can't. And, instead, Crystal's frustration and anger are directed entirely outwards:
I ... I want to kill all the people I ran into today. But that's a lot of people. Still, I ... I'd do it. Yeah, it wouldn't talke me long. And then, and then, hey Minho -- when it's all over, let's go to Sunday brunch at a hotel.
       Of course, she can't attack everyone around her. Her world and vision are limited, and she only goes after the most innocent, and those closest to her.
       Kim excuses Crystal to some extent by plunging her into outright craziness: by the end the girl is literally hearing voices ("Each jabbering away in a different language"). The system and its demands and expectations overwhelm her, but she's enough of a part of it that she can't simply walk out on it -- off a roof, like Chiye, or into a closet, like Mina. Her way out is a different one -- as Mina recognized.
       Much of Mina describes privileged but overwhelmed teenage life in modern South Korea. There are some schoolroom scenes, but much of the novel focuses on when the teens are away from the pressure-cooker proper, essentially slacking off, following their whims. There's a great sense of aimlessness -- which takes a sinister turn as Crystal flounders, and finds satisfaction only in the hurtful. The horribly hurtful, at times.
       Kim makes it a bit too easy on herself in turning Crystal into, essentially, a madwoman by the end; it suggests that maybe all she needs is a good dose of therapy, rather than that this society is rotten to the core. Elsewhere, Kim makes a more convincing case for how the culture has failed, and the damage it does. If the scenes between the friends and classmates aren't particularly exceptional -- part of the point, too, no doubt -- Kim adds a nice layer with the occasional commentary, piercing characters to the core; she could have well done with more of that. (Telling rather than showing: it really is underrated -- especially when it's done well, as Kim often manages here (and in contrast to the showing-scenes, many of which can seem a bit banal, the usual boring teenage hanging out stuff).)
       Reasonably solid, Mina ultimately relies a bit too much on the sensational for effect. If Crystal's mental decline were more understated, that too would have been more effective; still, there's a lot that's worthwhile before it gets to its final show-down (and at least Kim does end things on a satisfyingly sharp note).

- M.A.Orthofer, 24 September 2018

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Mina: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Korean literature

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About the Author:

       South Korean author Kim Sagwa was born in 1984.

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© 2018-2019 the complete review

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