The Hole: A Novel by Hye-young Pyun, translated by Sora Kim-Russell (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2017; originally published in Korea in 2016. 208 pp)

Hye-young Pyun made her literary debut in 2000 winning the Seoul Shinmun’s annual New Writer’s Contest with her short story ‘Shaking Off Dew.’ She has since published four short story collections and two novels. She has received several of Korea’s most prestigious literary awards, including the Yi Sang Literary Award in 2014 and the Hyundae Munhak Award in 2015. She lives in Seoul.

Sora Kim-Russell is a literary translator based in Seoul. Her translations include Hye-young Pyun’s Ashes and Red, Hwang Sok-yong’s Familiar Things and Princess Bari, Base Suah’s Nowhere to Be Found, and Kyung-sook Shin’s I’ll Be Right There. Her full list of publications can be found at www.sorakimrussell.com.

Claustrophobia

I’m not often found in tight enough spaces to detect true claustrophobia. Even in constricted circumstances—a large group, an airplane seat—my mind never wanders far from a larger task at hand. I have a place to be or a job to do. My proximal discomforts take second stage.

But when my mind considers the claustrophobic situation, even for a second, my body rebels. The skin  crawls on my arms like an army of ants attempting to dislodge this member to store for fallow months.

When the mind imagines freedom of motion and the desire to operate outside of restrictions, the body viscerally reacts to the situation.

Hye-young Pyun’s lung-tightening novella, The Hole, uses a paralyzed body as a framing device for a nightmarish narrative.

I Can’t Move

Oghi, an academic, finds himself constrained to his bed after a devastating crash. His wife, unfortunately, did not survive the accident.

“If his wife had continued driving, if he had not been in the driver’s seat himself, then the person lying in this bed right now answering questions, the person spending the rest of their life in the hospital paralyzed would not be Oghi, it would be her. He had no idea which scenario was better, but he was alive regardless. And he knew that, in order to stay alive, he had turned the steering wheel toward his side of the car at the decisive moment. Unconsciously. Just as any other driver would have done. To protect himself” (25).

Riddled with guilt, Oghi replays the fateful chain of events that resulted in the loss of his spouse.

Questionable Care

Orphaned, Oghi’s only remaining family is his mother-in-law. A grieving woman surely wishing her daughter sits before her rather than a son-in-law she never really respected.

“His mother-in-law’s parting words kept echoing in his mind. ‘Well-behaved.’ ‘Inferiority complex.’ Those words dug at him more than the open criticism his father-in-law had unleashed on him all through dinner. He felt like she saw right through him. She knew that because Oghi had nothing, he had every reason to have an inferiority complex, and that he wasn’t all that well-behaved either. His father-in-law had called him on it, and his mother-in-law in her own refined way made sure he didn’t forget it” (56).

As Oghi begins slightly to regain his motor skills, he moves back home. A nurse treats him, and he remains in his bed. But as expenses begging to drain from accounts and Oghi’s mother-in-law continues to sour on this new way of life, Oghi begins to fear possible ulterior motives.

“Oghi and his mother-in-law were alone in the house. It would be that way for a long time to come. His mother-in-law knew a lot of things. She did not hide it from Oghi. For all he knew she might have learned all of the things that his wife thought she knew. The problem was, Oghi had no idea what on earth his wife had known” (150).

The mother-in-law fires the nurse and moves in. She begins to neglect Oghi, spending time rehabilitating the garden his wife used to focus on rather than Oghi. Even more odd, his mother-in-law begins to dig a large hole in the middle of the yard. What use does she have in mind for this hole?

Oghi’s paralyzed state makes The Hole effective psychological horror. The claustrophobic nature of the novel makes every slight shift in normal routine unlock the worst possible scenarios in Oghi’s mind. When your mind has nothing else to consider, the tight spaces get tighter and tighter. And props to the book designers for increasing the size of the hole from chapter header to chapter header, reinforcing the suffocating nature of this novella. The Hole isn’t for everyone, but if you like claustrophobic, psychological horror, give this book a chance.

Verdict: 3.5 out of 5

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