Review: Violets - Kyung-Sook Shin
Genre: Literary Fiction
Published: Feminist Press 2022, First published January 2001
My Rating: 5/5 stars
“This desire grew slowly, stronger and stronger, but it never had any place to escape except for into sorrow. It has caused her to choose neglect. It has refused to be sublimated, but instead reappeared as a fresh green sadness.”
Synopsis: We join San in 1970s rural South Korea, a young girl ostracised from her community. She meets a girl called Namae, and they become friends until one afternoon changes everything. Following a moment of physical intimacy in a minari field, Namae violently rejects San, setting her on a troubling path of quashed desire and isolation.
We next meet San, aged twenty-two, as she starts a job in a flower shop. There, we are introduced to a colourful cast of characters, including the shop's mute owner, the other florist Su-ae, and the customers that include a sexually aggressive businessman and a photographer, who San develops an obsession for. Throughout, San's moment with Namae lingers in the back of her mind.
Violets is an absolutely haunting exploration of unmet desires, infatuation, and the fear of being forever unseen and overlooked. This was such a layered experience, filled with motifs of flowers, Greek mythology, language and more, that grew on me with every following page. By the start, I was reading a 3-star novel about an “ordinary girl” experiencing “ordinary things”. By the end I had read a phenomenally crafted masterpiece that will live rent free in my mind for quite some time to come.
I’m usually the kind of reader that needs to be able to relate to a main character, for a book to deeply impact me emotionally. With San, that wasn’t quite the case, yet I was still fascinated and invested in her as a character. Contrary to her reserved appearance, San experiences the world with an emotional intensity and contrast that’s seems to live in that phase between your late teens and early twenties. The world is loud and large around her; she is small and overlooked. She wishes to be seen, be captured and leave an imprint on the world, but also feels safe in her invisibility. She want to love; to connect, yet fears nothing more.
Shin Kyung-Sook packed so much into this character and story, so much of which felt so current to the time. Ironically so, since this book was written almost 15-years ago.
I tried to think of “readalikes” similar to this one. The closest I could come, mostly based on the feeling I got whilst reading it was Ghost Music by An Yu. Both differ quite a bit thematically and tonally, but evoke a similar feeling of sonder. A melancholic smallness, whilst coming of age a large Asian metropolis.
Thank you Matthew Sciarappa for championing and recommending this book over and over, leading to me eventually picking it up. You were só right!
Find this book here on Goodreads.