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Hye Young-Pyun: 홀 (The Hole)

Oghi wakes up in hospital. He has no idea why he is there but soon realises that he can barely move and cannot speak, only grunt. Indeed he tries to speak – Where is my wife?, he asks – but no-one can understand him. We gradually learn that he has been involved in a car accident, that his wife died in the accident and that he is paralysed.

We learn something of his back story. His mother, who suffered from ill health and depression, killed herself when he was twelve. As a result, his schoolmates bullied him, saying he was as crazy as his mother. However, he survived that and met his future wife. He was eager to get a job but she suggested that both of them should go to graduate college. She wanted to study journalism – her heroine was Oriana Fallaci (misspelled in the book). However, virtually everything she tried her hand at was a failure. Yet she brushed off each failure, hardly any worse for the wear.. Eventually, she became very interested in gardening and creates a beautiful garden at their house.

It is only later that we learn what Oghi is studying – geography and, specifically, cartography, apparently a very under-used discipline in South Korea. However, he gets his Ph. D. and gets a job teaching in his alma mater and manages to get side jobs, lecturing, and writing, so, financially they are doing very well. When his father died, he left some debts, so that took some of his savings but he was able to manage.

However, much of the book is how Oghi manages (or, rather, struggles) after the accident. He is eight months in hospital and makes little progress, able only to move his left hand and turn his head. He is taken home and his mother-in-law, who has been devoted to him, engages a carer. Things do not go well. The carer is not really qualified and even allows her abusive and drunken son to come into the house. Hye Young-Pyun’s skill, however, is to show us how his mother-in-law subtly is undermining him while, at the same time, seemingly helping him.

The mother-in-law, like Oghi, has no-one left, her husband and, of course, her daughter, having died. She makes the point to Oghi that all they each have left is one another. She brings in an expensive pastor to pray over him (he is not religious), embarrasses him in front of his former colleagues when they visit and often neglects him.

At the same time, we are learning more about his relationship with his wife, which turns out to be much worse than we might have anticipated, not least because he had an affair. His wife clearly was not happy and saw him as the main if not sole source of her unhappiness.

Things steadily get worse with his mother-in-law. And what is that huge hole she seems to be digging in the back garden?

This book is certainly somewhat disturbing, as we can readily identify with Oghi who is, to all intents and purposes helpless, barely able to speak and with only limited control of his limbs. Are people taking advantage of him or do they just consider him something of a bother? Hye Young-Pyun cleverly leaves us guessing at what is happening, whether he will recover (as he hopes and, indeed, plans for) and what his mother-in-law really wants.

Publishing history

First published 2016 by Munhak kwa Chisŏngsa
First English translation by Arcade in 2017