I read Ch'oe Yun's There a Petal Silently Falls (a collection of three fairly not-short stories, tr. Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton) on the basis of a single tweet from Tony (of Tony's Reading List fame) - I saw the tweet, looked up the book, requested it from my library... and three days later I was sitting on the couch and mulling over the book I had just read.
Truthfully, I didn't particularly enjoy There a Petal Silently Falls while reading it, particularly the title story which seriously unnerved me. All three stories are a bit strange, but in surprisingly different ways. "There a Petal Silently Falls" is confusing in its messy, non-linear and ambiguous narrative, "Whisper Yet" felt exceedingly partial to me, as though half the story was missing, and "The Thirteen Scent Flower" (which was easily my favorite of the stories) contained such a strange and frankly fantastic (from fantasy) story and setting that it can't help but be viewed as a little offbeat.
The more I sat and thought about the collection as a whole, the more I began to wonder about what I had missed. Even a quick skim of "There a Petal Silently Falls" revealed a deeper understanding of the story, even if (after reading the afterword) I realized that I was missing fundamental historical context. This missing context suddenly put the story in a whole different category. No longer was it confusing because of poor writing, it was suddenly obvious to me that it was confusing because I lacked the necessary background to fully understand it. This doesn't take away from the fact that I was confused, but it explained how a story so vague could nonetheless get away with employing such a twisted style. Suddenly the baffling point-of-view switches in the story seemed not like a weird post-modern mess, but a fairly brilliant trick.
The same was true of "Whisper Yet". Once I reached the end of the story, I understood that there had been many small clues scattered throughout the shorter story that built up to something fairly meaningful. And yet without the proper context, the story simply felt loose and scattered. This wasn't quite as extreme as "There a Petal Silently Falls" (of course, "Whisper Yet" is significantly shorter...), but there was still just a bit of reader frustration on my part.
It may well be that "The Thirteen Scent Flower" also had some deeper level of context that I didn't pick up on, but honestly I enjoyed the story even without it. Unlike its two predecessors, "The Thirteen Scent Flower" has a bit of an uplifting message, and its characters are oddly endearing. There are certainly darker undertones to the story, but I doggedly refuse to view it as anything other than sweet, because after two grimmer stories, I honestly needed something cheerier. Plus there's a lovely bit of scientist satire there that rings particularly true. Even with its clever social commentary, it manages to be a really enjoyable story.
I didn't get the impression that there's any explicit link between any of these three stories, but I have to admit that they work fairly well as a whole. The stories balance each other's weaknesses - one with stronger messages but weaker characters, another with stronger characters but weaker writing, another with stellar writing but a blurry message... Thematically the three do all touch on modern Korean struggles and society, but in such markedly different ways that I'm hard-pressed to say that the stories are really tied together.
Once I'd thought for a while, I had to concede - yes, there was a lot to appreciate in this collection. It was less forgettable than I thought it was going to be while reading it, and also less "all over the place" (particularly after reading the afterword which - again - provided me with some much-needed context). The writing is interesting, often experimental and different (not always precisely to my liking, but there's no denying that it's very smart, very good writing), and while not all the characters were quite as memorable as others, their stories were. It's not necessarily a book I'd shove into any reader's hands, but it's definitely worth taking a look at. And while her approach isn't necessarily my favorite, Ch'oe's writing is certainly interesting enough to keep me on the lookout for more.