Lead Review (Whale)

  • Book: Whale
  • Location: South Korea
  • Author: Cheon Myeong-Kwan, Chi-Young Kim (Translator)

Review Author: Tina Hartas



Whale is a sweeping satire set in 1950s Korea at a moment in history when, thanks to the Korean War, South Korea underwent a breath-taking transformation from tradition to modernity, with all of the ‘American’ influences that came with it. The collision of cultures forms the basis of the satire as the author, while taking for granted the ‘American Dream’ almost as an inevitability, explores how this modernisation landed in Far East Asia and what the locals did with it. The Whale itself is the core symbol of this progress.

Whale is a cinema built in the shape of a whale in a remote village in inland South Korea. The reader is treated to a detailed and meandering account of how this edifice came to be through the main character Geumbok. A gritty, ruthless self-made woman who pulls herself up out of poverty and destitution to become rich and powerful, it is hard to like Geumbok even though in the end we understand her, which I imagine is what the author wants. It is equally hard to empathise with her mute daughter Chunhui and yet she, not Geumbok, deserves our sympathy. All of the characters in the story are grotesque, if not at first, then they become that way, and most are unlikeable. My favourite character was the elephant Jumbo.

The sense of place in Whale is strong. The writing, while not majoring in long vivid descriptions of settings, conjures what it was like in Korea for the people living there during a time of rapid change. The first third of the story is mostly set in a bustling port city. Geumbok arrives as a teenager and through her tenacity, manages to not only survive but thrive. It is there that she is introduced to the cinema, and especially to Westerns featuring John Wayne. Geumbok ends up in the rundown village of Pyeongdae, which, thanks to major improvements on the railway line and Geumbok’s luck and business acumen, she transforms into a modern town. It is here that she fulfils her dream of building a cinema in the shape of a whale, in homage to the whale she saw breaching the ocean in her past.

Whale is superbly crafted. The story is told with tremendous wit by an omniscient narrator. And it’s this skilled narration that carries the story along and keeps the reader turning the pages. Myeong-Kwan manages to make a virtue out of being longwinded and convoluted. The story is both immersive and easy to read, and contains quite a few surprises. In all, Whale is a tour de force of a novel ideal for fans of highly readable literary fiction with a strong sense of place.

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