Review: At Dusk by Hwang Sok-yong, Scribe

In this highly engaging novel, Hwang Sok-yong subtly interweaves the reminiscences of three people.
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Hwang Sok-yong’s At Dusk translated by Sora Kim-Russell published by Scribe.

In this highly engaging novel, Hwang Sok-yong subtly interweaves the reminiscences of three people, Park Minwoo, Cha Soona and Jung Woohee, whose relationships with each other becomes clearer as the story unfolds. 

Hwang’s main character is a lonely elderly man, Minwoo, who now lives in Seoul. Minwoo spent ten years working in the USA and his estranged wife and only daughter prefer to live there. Through hard work and study, and a little bit of good luck, Minwoo has lifted himself from poverty to become a successful architect and a wealthy person of some influence. He gives advice on how to be successful: ‘All you had to do was listen to what the person with power said, and then say the same thing with different words’. Minwoo understands how the system works so when two government investigators leave his office after questioning him his offsider says, ‘I gave them a little something for their trouble’.

Much of the novel is about Minwoo’s memories, particularly about his youth, and also about his career against the background of South Korea’s recovery from Japanese occupation and the significant social and political upheavals  that culminate in the democratic South Korea of today.

The reader does not need to be au fait with South Korea’s post-second-world-war history to enjoy this novel. However some background knowledge of the significant changes that occurred in South Korea during the period covered by this novel is helpful to understanding references to certain events, such as the Gwangju massacre, to which Minwoo refers. 

Among Minwoo’s happiest and saddest memories are those of his love affair with Soona. She often thinks of him, although their paths diverged and they have seen little of each other for many years. Soona, reminiscing about her childhood, writes, ‘Our neighbourhood was so poor that only a few houses had glass windows’.

Woohee is Soona’s son’s friend, and she also tells her story, which is that of a younger generation in vigorous middle-age, in contrast to Minwoo and Soona, who are approaching the end of their lives. Woohee is poor and works part-time so she has time to act, unpaid, in a local theatre group. The people she sees on the way to work remind her ‘of the tiny mammals who cower among the beasts of prey deep in the jungle and must survive on their wits alone’.

Hwang has written this novel in a charming conversational style while still allowing for the distinctive voices of the three central characters. A touch of melancholy pervades what Minwoo has to say while Woohee is more prosaic. Soona occupies the middle ground. Hwang makes it easy to identify with each of his characters – we feel their pain and share in their happiness. and forgive their mistakes and misunderstandings. And as they share their past with us, we gain a better understanding of the social and political background of the times and the day-by-day lives of South Korean people.

4 ½ stars ★★★★☆
At Dusk
By Hwang Sok-yong
Translated by Sora Kim-Russell

FORMAT: Paperback
SIZE: 198mm × 129mm
EXTENT: 192pp
ISBN (13):9781925322934
PUB DATE: 1 Oct 2018
RIGHTS HELD: World English

Erich Mayer
About the Author
Erich Mayer is a retired company director and former organic walnut farmer. He now edits the blog
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