Cover Image: Shoko's Smile

Shoko's Smile

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Choi Eun-yong’s short stories collection, Shoko’s Smile, brings an intimate connection between people across boundaries of time and space, redefines love and loss that easily makes me lost in the seven stories included in this volume. It is easy to take for granted the emancipation of women and how technological advance make our daily lives more bearable today. But Choi Eun-yong’s stories take us to revisit how society changed in the past few decades, with her stories that seem to take points of view from people growing up in the 1990s as political and societal changes happened in South Korea.

The titular story Shoko’s Smile remains my favourite among the seven stories. It brings the viewpoint of Soyu, a Korean teenager who received Shoko, a Japanese high school student of the same age who happened to participate in high school academic exchange to Korea. Soyu and her family members hosted Shoko during the one-week visit, during which Soyu’s grandfather and mother also interacted with Shoko. After the brief visit, Shoko remained in touch with the family, sending letters in Japanese to Soyu’s grandfather and in English to Soyu. Most of the time, the letters would contain contradictory remarks, symbolising the differences between Shoko’s smile that appears on the outside with her inner desire to escape the world she lives in. Soyu was shocked at the extent of the conversation between her grandfather and Shoko who was practically a stranger, even telling her something that she never knew about her grandfather. Sometimes, it’s easier to tell ‘sensitive’ things to strangers rather than those closest to us, for the sake of sparing the ‘awkwardness’ of confiding our secrets. Choi Eun-yong using creative sentences and symbolisation of the smile and letter exchanges could recall this usually unexplainable situation in the brief friendship between Shoko and Soyu.

Many of Choi Eun-yong’s stories feature women who find themselves understood in the weirdest circumstances by another woman whom they encountered by chance. In Xin Cháo, Xin Cháo, the friendship between the narrator’s mother and Mrs Nguyen found themselves due to their husbands’ shared workplace. The year was 1995, many Vietnamese families in the past moved to East Germany during the GDR era as part of Gastarbeiter ‘guest worker’ to contribute to industrialisation of fellow socialist countries. The narrator found herself in that part of the country as her parents were both German majors and worked there after graduation. Yet in this strange context, they found themselves drawn to this situation, formed a close friendship that is bridged in a second language, German. However, the warmness of Mrs Nguyen toward the narrator’s family could not survive the argument about South Korea’s involvement to aid the US military forces during the Vietnam War, when Mrs Nguyen’s family losses were revealed as the casualties of the war. Sometimes people who understood us the most are those who were wounded and hid their wounds deeply, ‘to make the situation comfortable’.

Shoko’s Smile is an intimate collection, filled with stories that depict the raw intimate connections between people who sometimes find themselves in the worst period of their lives and encounter strange connections with other women. The stories also show how sometimes even some connection made in the shortest period of time, such as the one week of connection between Shoko and Soyu in Shoko’s Smile or the three months in Hanji and Youngju, could have long-lasting impacts on the lives of the persons involved and reveal their innermost vulnerabilities. It also shows how memories of the past could change, as some gaps are revealed to bring a clearer picture of the past, that the past could finally be seen in a different light through each new fact revealed by the characters. Translated beautifully by Sung Ryu, who also co-translated Kim Bo-young’s I'm Waiting for You and Other Stories, this collection reveals the rawness of human’s connection and brings the changing political backdrops in South Korea to celebrate those who lost their relationships and families in the turbulent tide of history.
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"I dig my hands into the cold sand and gaze at the black, shimmering sea.
It feels like the edge of the universe."

Who told you you can do what you want? 
Who told you you are free to choose your studies, your career, your life? 
Who told you you can fight against a past that you had no part in? 
Who told you to defy -or even worse-try to alter society's image and expectations of you and every young woman in your position? 
When the personal stands face-to-face with the political, when womanhood and democracy become tools in a corrupted agenda exploited by both sides, does the individual have to fight alone? In this beautiful collection by Choi Eunyoung, brilliantly translated by Sung Ryu, the answer is no. Togetherness is the synonym of survival.

"She flipped open the octavo sketchbook to reveal a series of simple crayon drawings. Some looked like splashes of colour, some were tiny doodles in the corner of the page. I noticed sloppy letters scribbled in crayon below every picture. Shoko pointed at the letters and read them aloud first in Japanese, then in English:
“Half-​­burnt sole of a foot.”
“Extinguished streetlight on a highway.”
“Rotten, but only rotten, seed.”
“Soldier marching out of step.”
“Dictator with no zeal.”
“Antonym of typical.”
“But . . . typical.”
“The strange echo of the phrase: I knew this would happen.”
“Pigeons pecking the ground to their last frozen breath.”

Shoko's Smile: This is the moving, heartfelt, sensitive story of two girls. Their families, their dreams and ambitions, and the way they cope with that difficult thing called "life". One from South Korea, the other from Japan, the young women are much more alike than they think.

"In high summer, even past ten p.m., a little sunlight would linger in the atmosphere as if it were still dusk. I liked watching the light fade slowly, a bluish glow engulfing the landscape before me. When I felt the evening breeze blow in through the living room window, heard voices and peals of laughter from the adults in the kitchen, or peered at the sleeping face of Thuỷ who always dozed off around then with his mouth open, when the bluish glow drained of colour and one by one the streetlights came on, it hit me that I might one day miss this moment."

Xin Chào, Xin Chào: A Korean and a Vietnamese family befriend each other in Germany. Their children, a girl and a boy, become best friends. But the past is always around the corner and an inconsiderate, indifferent man is more than capable of tearing everything down. 

“Miss Lee, be a good girl and save your energy for finding a husband. Take it from someone who knows. The world can screw you over even if you keep your head down, Miss Lee.”
Sister, My Little Soonae: A poignant, solemn, moving story about a cruel state, judicial murder, a harsh, indifferent and frightened society and the bond between women. It will break your heart but it has to be read. 

"I think of you as I watch the light reflecting off a glacier.
A hundred white nights.
Light intoxicates people but also keeps them awake. Here, my eyes are open yet I am dreaming. It is as if you are standing in front of that glacier, your body under the sun giving off a bluish hue. In this isolation with nothing but light, I intend to drill into the heart of Antarctica and discover the six hundred and fifty thousand years of memories etched into the ice. I know I don’t have the courage or the strength to do it.
I’ve come here nonetheless."

Hanji and Youngju: I was so frustrated with this story. I was so angry that a young woman who finally decided to do what she wanted and stopped trying to fulfil her family's wishes, was let down by a man who just didn't deserve the trouble. I just want to forget that this story -beautiful as it is-ever existed. 

"Is enrollment year some kind of medal? Is the prick who shows up every year, gets drunk, and picks on the youngest, weakest girl still my Sunbae? Shin Gyungsok, you say you love democracy? How can someone who has to tower over weaker people, even in this little group, go on about democracy? I bet a guy like you would feel right at home in a dictatorship. Even the idea of everyone being equal is beyond you, honestly."

A Song From Afar: The tender story of a deep bond between two scholars from Korea, the will to follow your path, the beauty of St Petersburg, the ache of loss and the hope that somehow never fades. A story of three strong women from different backgrounds, of their dreams and their reality. 

Michaela: A beautiful yet terribly sad story about motherhood, loss and endurance with direct references to the Pope's visit to Korea and the terrible losses when the MV Sewol sank off the coast of South Korea on April 16, 2014.

The Secret: Another moving story of a family faced with the prospect of Death and the unbreakable bond between mothers and daughters. 

“You shouldn’t give away what’s yours all the time. Or else you’ll make a habit of giving and giving.”

Many thanks to John Murray Press and NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.

My reviews can also be found on https://theopinionatedreaderblog.wordpress.com/
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Shoko's Smile is a collection of short stories about women. Each story was unique and had complex female characters in different situations. The characters were not necessarily likeable, but the author brought out their emotions and vulnerability through her writing.
The stories revolved around fractured relationships, forgiveness, immense hardship, loss, tragedy, death and regret. Choi also incorporated politics and historical events into her stories.
My favourite stories were Xin Chao, Xin Chao - a bittersweet story about two families; one Korean and the other Vietnamese, living in Germany, whose strong bond was never repaired after mention of the Vietnamese War and The Secret; a heartbreaking story of a grandmother who is kept in the dark about her grand daughter's death in the Sewol Ferry disaster. Instead, the terminally ill grandmother is told that her grand daughter is teaching in a remote place in China.
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This is a really amazing translated short story collection by Korean author Choi Eun-young. Although I never read anything by her before, now I shall. Each story bear a poignant story about real people with valid emotions, tragic outcomes, and a beating heart bleeding in each. A connecting thread was family and love. In each story, the author celebrated love and explored different types of love. In Shoko's Love and The Secret, we find love between grandparents and grandchildren. In Xin Chào, Xin Chào, we find friendship breakups in both kids and adults. In A Song From Afar, Shoko's Smile, and Sister, My Little Soonae, we get sisterly love between women who aren't even related. In Hanji and Yongju, you'll get the pining and yearning of impossible (romantic) love. In Michaela and The Secret, the love between parent and children comes. Thus, the author celebrates all types of love in all sorts of places, be it in a Japanese small town or an unforgivingly cruel Seoul or a quiet monastery in a tiny French village. My personal favorite was Hanji and Yongju, since I love tragic love stories with lots of pining and angst.

Thank you, NetGalley and John Murray Press, for providing me with an eARC in exchange for my honest opinion.
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Oomfph. These stories pack a punch, realism that haunts. Most are first person - a Korean woman looking back at earlier events, each different enough from the last with differing concerns and histories - although later ones are in third person. Why do I bother mentioning the nationality? Because several of the stories involve other countries which was a surprise! Someone else described these stories as portraits, and they’re right, it’s more accurate than simply ‘stories’. They feel like lived experience, and interactions as good writing should. I’m really glad this collection has been translated, I’m giving it 4 stars now but I plan to re-read in a few years and I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets the extra star then.

With thanks to NetGalley for the eARC in exchange for an honest review.
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Slice of life short stories are my thing, so reading the description of this book when I found it on NetGalley recently, I knew I had to give it a chance - and I am so glad I did, as Eun-Young Choi delivers incredible depth and pathos in this book, that I truly have such an incredible appreciation for after reading this collection.

A winding road of stories that delivers little bubbles of everyday life, this book certainly gives us characters that deliver such incredible emotion throughout and some beautiful stories that really give you something. Stories such as 'Xin Chao, Xin Chao' are brilliant and leave you learning something and taking in a story that is packed with poignancy and has such a heartwarming and maybe bittersweet ending.

These plots are emotional, bittersweart, heartbreaking and honest and stand together incredibly well in this collection. Alongside 'Xin Chao, Xin Chao' stories such as opening story, 'Shoko's Smile' are raw and human and feeling like you could very much see this story play out where you are too - there's something incredibly captivating about stories that you know could be played out in reality and this author captures that in this book.

An incredible collection of very human stories that feels like looking into the lives of extraordinary people.

(I received an ARC from NetGalley for honest review).
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I'm a huge fan of Korean fiction in translation and short story collections, so I was doubly excited about this once I heard about it. Unfortunately, I found this to be a disappointing read. The writing was very plain to the point of being bored, and none of the stories were compelling to me at all. As a whole I just found this to be a very unimpressionable collection. There was nothing egregiously bad about it, but there was nothing memorable about it either. 

Thank you to the publisher for providing me with an e-ARC!
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Shoko's Smile is a thoughtful and well-balanced collection of short stories.

Choi is an empathetic storyteller, and her characters are at the heart of her fiction. Each story offers an astute exploration of a complex relationship (whether that's with family, friends or a romantic partner), often touching on the tension between the personal and the political. Choi's understated prose lends every scene a sense of poingancy.

Shoko's Smile also deserves praise for being such a brilliantly curated collection. While the stories are bound together by the common theme of connection, each piece has its own distinct power and weight.

Shoko's Smile is an unassuming collection with hidden depths; I'm looking forward to reading more translations of Choi's work.
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Whenever I think of this collection of stories, I recall the powerful scene where Shoko’s grandfather just stood there with his apples and juice boxes in a plastic bag. Tears in his eyes. It takes skill to write and translate a scene that makes the reader sympathize so strongly with a character, both while reading and when thinking about the book weeks later. I wasn’t there, but I can still see her grandpa standing there like that.

The two grandpas
The title story, Shoko’s Smile, illustrates how a person’s eyes and smile can contradict each other, like the English and Japanese letters Shoko sends to the narrator and the latter’s grandpa. Although Shoko makes everyone feel comfortable, the narrator notices a difference in the way she smiles. Shoko’s struggles are central to this story, but the two grandpas are the true stars.

Unique friendships
All stories in this short story collection are very touching and have memorable characters. They are about people who find friendships in unexpected places. Friendships that are not perfect, as nothing in life is. There is misunderstanding and caring, thoughtfulness and suffering. Children have the power to care sincerely, as Sister, My Little Soonae shows, but it is incredibly difficult to see others suffer. Especially if you’re not in a position to do anything about it, as the following quote illustrates, “I did not enjoy beholding the naked face of someone who could neither escape her pinned-down life nor manage to love it.”

The tales demonstrate the impact that (historical) events such as the sinking of the Sewol ferry or the war fought in Vietnam still have on everyday life. How long do you keep apologizing for something a family member or your ancestors did? The story Xin Chào, Xin Chào is about the sensitive relationship between a Korean and a Vietnamese family in East Germany. The author could not have chosen a more interesting setting for this story. There is always more beneath the surface, and time will often reveal what was previously hidden, changing your memory of people you know.

There’s beauty in sadness
People make assumptions without knowing what happened. And so do I. Whatever happened between the main characters in Hanji and Youngju? Their story was my favorite: it’s beautiful and a little sad. The same goes for Malja’s story in The Secret, another great story that made a deep impression on me. 

The stories in Shoko’s Smile show both beauty and sadness as if you were reading a book about missed happy endings. But sadness is not the feeling that stays with you, it’s the small and beautiful moments that show that people care that do.
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Well written I was involved from the first story.Really interesting to read a book that was translated from Korean a culture that I would like to know more about.Will be recommending #netgalley#johnmurray
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As is often the case with short story collections, I felt some of these were better than others.  But the ones I liked, were really great.  I haven't read any Korean literature in translation before - I had wondered if it would be similar to Japanese writing, and this did have a quirkiness to it, but of course that may be just this particular book!
Anyway, it's easy to dip in and out of and deals with all sorts of issues - love, family, death, grief.
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As far as I can say the translation of this short story collection is well done. 
As usual for japanese or korean books this has a more neutral tone to it, but the sories are still packed  with emotions. We follow the characters in their everday life and their struggles sometimes felt too real, I didn't expect to be so touched by some of the narrations. I actually didn't want to continue reading, because I didn't want to leave the first two stories behind. Common ground of all are the characters; they're are searching or griefing, which makes them quite relatable.
I wasn't able to get something out of every story though. It's just a hit or miss with some of them, I didn't particularly like the themes of faith or religion. But I'm sure other readers will love them more than I did.
Overall this was a very good collection and i will revisited some stories again in the future.
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