Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Book Review: This Burns My Heart by Samuel Park

"Happiness came that day - she knew nothing - and asked her to say yes and she did not. Why did she assume it would come back again, when there were so many others waiting for it to visit" (pg. 245)?

This Burns My Heart by Samuel Park
Simon & Schuster
6 March 2012
336 Pages
Literary Fiction
5 Stars

Barnes & Noble; Book Depository; Goodreads 

On the eve of her marriage, beautiful and strong-willed Soo-Ja Choi receives a passionate proposal from a young medical student. But caught up in her desire to pursue a career in Seoul, she turns him away, having impetuously chosen another man who she believes will let her fulfill her dreams. Instead, she finds herself tightly bound by tradition and trapped in a suffocating marriage, her ambition reduced to carving out a successful future for her only daughter. Through it all, she longs for the man she truly loves, whose path she seems destined to cross again and again.

Every so often I come across a book that is exquisitely excruciating - one that looks with too keen an eye at the world and stirs up thoughts and emotions usually left dormant. This Burns My Heart is one such book.

I originally picked it up because of the separated lovers premise, but I quickly found that this is no mere love story. Rather, it is an exploration of how one choice can change an entire life.

Samuel Park's work is much more character-driven than plot-driven, so the novel hinges upon how the reader receives Soo-Ja Choi. I, for one, absolutely loved her. We meet her as a young woman with dreams of moving to Seoul to become a foreign dignitary in a time when women were expected to marry and stay at home.  In her desire to fulfill her ambitions, she refuses the proposal of a young medical student in favor of a man she believes she will be able to manipulate to her will.

Even in the beginning when she is willful, immature, selfish, and naive, I completely connected with her. I admired her ambitions and her desire to be more than the housewife that society expected her to be, even though I disagreed with the means used to rise above her gender.  But as her difficult life weighs upon her and injustices are committed, she wises up  and matures into a woman I respected.

Soo-Ja is not a perfect character, but this made her all the more real to me. Her flaws lent weight to the times when she stood on principle and chose the more difficult but nobler path. She's not simply a moral hero, but instead is motivated by priorities, cultural influences, societal expectations, public opinion, fear, and love. I didn't agree with all of her choices or the reasons behind them, but I understood each and every one of them; therefore, I greatly sympathized with her - weeping with her, screaming with her, and being amazed every time she found strength in a situation wherein I would have wilted.

The book is centered around Soo-Ja, but another character with substantial development is Min.  He is definitely a weak, cowardly man, but he is also shrewd and forward-thinking.  While I wanted to hate him for tricking Soo-Ja into marrying him, I found that I couldn't.  Rather, I ended up pitying and even understanding him.  He lives in the same condition with the same family as Soo-Ja, but he lacks her inner resolve and confidence, so his spirit is crushed.  Throughout the book, he tries to be the man that he desires to be - an upright, independent man who protects his wife and commands respect. Those instances made me grieve for the person he could have been had he grown up in a different environment.  By the end, when he makes his final decision, I had grown a fragile love for him.

The only other character I felt strongly about was Min's father, a true villain. He angered me at every turn, and he's the only character I found no redeeming qualities in. I was glad for it, though, because he provided balance to Soo-Ja's life. We all have antagonists in our lives, and he is Soo-Ja's.

The other characters are well-written, but they lack the opacity of Soo-Ja and Min.  Even Yul, the star-crossed lover, doesn't receive as much focus. In this case, however, I actually appreciated this because I didn't want the story to be about their love.  If it had only been about two separated lovers, it would have been so much less impactful.  Instead, because Yul is mostly on the periphery of the story, the reader is allowed to focus on Soo-Ja and her life without love.

The plot is torturous in its sorrow but captivating.  Our heroine's life is one blow after another, and my love for her made my heart break with hers every time.  Yet, the tragedy is never unbelievable or over-the-top, so I never had to suspend my disbelief.

If you prefer books that have a lot going on, a standard plot-mountain format, and fast pacing, this book is definitely not for you.  Park has written out an entire life, so the pacing is slow, but not agonizingly so, and her life is definitely not a series of adventures.  For those familiar with the style of literary fiction, you should have no issues with the pacing.

What truly made this book for me was the setting.  Soo-Ja would be a less impactful character if she lived somewhere other than South Korea during the 1960s.  The cultural setting makes the events surrounding her plausible, whereas, if it were set in the Western world, I would have never believed it. The development of Korea, with the rise of capitalism, consumerism, and individualism, lends tension to Soo-Ja's struggle against tradition and mirrors her growth. Moreover, the book reveals so much about Korean society, gender roles, families, and history, which only adds another layer to its appeal.  As someone who has a passionate interest in East Asia, especially Korea, I greatly appreciated how genuine the Korea Park created was.

Samuel Park is a very gifted writer.  This is his first novel, yet the prose is mature and gorgeously poetic.  His writing is atmospheric and emotionally dense, but it's not stifling or melodramatic.  I'm excited to see how he grows as a writer since his first effort was so impressive.

The idea that moved me the most emotionally and in thought was how one choice could completely derail the rest of a person's life.  There is a beautiful passage where Soo-Ja is an older woman, and she finally realizes everything that she said no to when she turned down Yul.

"We're only given one life, and it's the one we live, she had thought; how painful now, to realize that wasn't true, that you would have different lives, depending on how brave you were, and how ready. Love came to her that day - she was twenty-two - and wanted to take her, and she said no" (pg. 245).

As I come upon my thirtieth year, I look back on my life to assess each choice, sometimes with regret. So her experience resonated heavily with me, and I know that many will be able to relate.

Another prevalent theme is the struggle of the individual against the collective. Because Asian culture is founded on the family, this is a popular topic in Asian literature. Soo-Ja has to choose between her responsibility to her family - her parents, husband, in-laws, and daughter - and her responsibility to herself. Min is crippled by his dependence upon his family and is unable to stand as an individual. We even see the shift in cultural values in their daughter, Hana, whose desire for self-gratification far outweighs her commitment to family.

Overall, I loved this book and had no qualms with it. I understand why some would find it slow, but for those who love character exploration, I highly recommend Samuel Park's This Burns My Heart. I give it an unreserved 5 stars.

Do you have any literary fiction or Asian literature recommendations for me? Leave them in the comments below.

Also, check out my ten recommendations for people who are new to Classic literature. 

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Happy reading!

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