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from the May 2020 issue

Ha Seong-nan’s “Bluebeard’s First Wife” Gives the Old Tale of Patriarchy a New Twist

Reviewed by Hannah Weber

A crucial voice in the burgeoning movement of feminist fiction from South Korea, Ha is a master of atmospheric suspense whose stories use shock and horror to dissect contemporary gender-based violence and its historical roots.

An angry lone shooter wanders through the mist into town, bullets clinking. A woman sits bolt upright in the back of a taxi going the wrong way on an unlit road. A detective stumbles through the woods, dodging the searchlights of night poachers. In Ha Seong-nan’s new short story collection, Bluebeard’s First Wife, darkness and fog turn farmers’ fields and city suburbs into places of hidden horrors. These eleven stories use shock and horror to dissect contemporary gender-based violence and and its relationship to the community. Ha is a crucial voice in the burgeoning movement of feminist fiction from South Korea, which tackles the embodied experiences and fears of women in a highly patriarchal society, and includes names such as Cho Nam-joo (Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982) and Han Kang (The Vegetarian).

The volume’s title comes from the famous French folktale, first written down by Charles Perrault and published in 1697. In the original story, a wealthy nobleman named Bluebeard marries a series of young women who all mysteriously disappear. Bluebeard gives his newest bride a set of keys and tells her she can unlock any door in the vast château, but must never go into the cellar. Overcome by curiosity, she opens the cellar door and finds the floor covered with blood, and the bodies of his six previous wives hung up on the walls. Startled, she drops the key ring, later discovering that she cannot wipe off the bloodstains that will surely alert Bluebeard to her transgression. While she is eventually saved and gets her happily-ever-after, the story imparts a peculiar lesson about the dangers of curiosity.

 In 2016, some three centuries after Perrault first put Bluebeard’s story into print, a thirty-four-year-old man stabbed a twenty-three-year-old woman to death when she entered the public bathroom of a karaoke bar in Seoul. What came to be known as “the Gangnam murder case” ignited a feminist movement in South Korea, in reaction not only to the horrific violence of the episode, but also to how it was handled in the ensuing court proceedings. The perpetrator, who did not know his victim, claimed to have killed her because he had been “ignored and humiliated by women his whole life.” The police and investigative parties blamed the murder on the perpetrator’s mental illness, significantly downplaying the role of misogyny. Just like in fables, we’re compelled to search for meaning in horrific real-life events—a parable, or some lesson to internalize and ward off the feeling that violence is arbitrary. Don’t wander off at night, don’t open a forbidden door, don’t fall in with the wrong crowd or look too closely for answers. And while there are countless cautionary tales of what happens to curious women, what the French folktale leaves out, for instance, is how the first wife died.

The titular story in Ha’s collection, “Bluebeard’s First Wife,” follows the new wife of a secretive South Korean man living in New Zealand. He is cold and withdrawn, but she makes the best of it, preparing for the arrival of an enormous custom-made wardrobe from back home and tending a garden in front of the house. She almost counts herself lucky, as her friends back home gush about her new life of material wealth in a foreign country. Like Bluebeard, her husband has a forbidden study; unsettled by the noises she hears behind the door, she enters and discovers him with a male lover. In a flash of anger, he turns on her and, with his boyfriend’s reluctant help, knocks her unconscious and violently stuffs her into her beloved wardrobe. She languishes there for untold hours before they open the door; while they attempt to transfer her limp body to the trunk of the car, she makes a frantic escape.

The stories all lean on film noir tropes of shadows and paranoia. The settings are often bleak and gritty, but evoke an uncanny familiarity. Those which appear bright or cheerful do so only as a disguise for something sinister.

In “O Father,” and “Pinky Finger,” Ha perfectly captures this oppressive atmosphere, capturing young girls’ uneasy existence in a world populated by both real and imagined threats. “Never get in a taxi alone at night,” one of them starts. The reader, particularly the female reader, is certain to feel that they already know the story long before the end. We could call Ha’s personal genre “domestic surrealism,” not only because of the narrative emphasis on the home, family, and community, but also for how intimately many women carry those words of “sound advice.” The stories' surrealist quality comes precisely from the transition from the real to the imaginary—they are the speculative conclusions of what might go wrong if we walk alone at night, or leave our child alone at home, or get too drunk at a party with men we don’t know.

Janet Hong’s translation and rendering of Ha’s style is so uniformly applied that it brings an extra cohesiveness to the collection. In fact, it is precisely the detached coolness of this voice that is so effectively disturbing in conjunction with the grotesque facts it describes. They are tales that could appear sprawled across the front page of a tabloid, but Hong treats them without a hint of sensationalism: the troublesome neighbors upstairs in “A Quiet Night”; the deadly hunting accident in “Night Poaching”; the straying husband with a second family somewhere else in the city in “O Father.”

The jewel of the collection, “Daisy Fleabane,” is a perfect example of this strategy at work: it follows the calm, almost aloof thoughts of a bloated corpse as she is dragged along a riverbed by unwitting fishermen.

While her characters are decidedly plain (corpse notwithstanding), Ha’s landscapes are elegant and painterly, expertly exposing the fissures between appearances and reality:

Car headlights swept between the glow of 24-hour convenience stores, church steeples, crosses, and streetlights. The morning would reveal the shabbiness that had been concealed by night—apartment buildings in various stages of reconstruction, residential streets heaped with garbage, and the dark reeking stream that cut through vacant lots overgrown with weeds—but the nightscape was lovely.

Much of the imagery is left over from her debut collection, Flowers of Mold. Pungency, brine, rot, and the primacy of smell over other senses is consistent throughout both collections. “A sour tang escaped from the plastic bag hanging on her shoulder,” the narrator writes of a woman boarding a tour bus to visit the burned-out building where her young daughter perished with her classmates in a fire; “An unpicked squash lay rotting in the soil,” remarks an outsider come to investigate the death of a village man in a hunting accident. The air inside the taxi on an ill-fated ride was “dank and musty; the cab seemed to have been shut up for a long time without any circulation.”

Ha turns a cold, penetrating eye on those men who have been “scorned” by women. Sometimes they are revealed as the centerpiece of a story, while other times they are mentioned in passing, becoming part of the landscape women navigate. There are young boys who shout “Bitch!” at strange girls, and men who leer at women while idly cradling glasses of soju—men who, in these stories of women’s work and survival, seem almost unnecessary in women’s lives. In “The Dress Shirt,” a character quips that “[She] didn’t feel any real discomfort or regret over the absence of her husband.” In many of the narratives, women are linked to productivity, and even to life itself, whereas men languish on the sidelines, growing resentful. The feelings of scorn and superfluousness embodied by the assailant in the Gangnam murder case are repressed until they reach a boiling point: in “Flies,” for example, a police officer beats a woman he slept with, then arms himself for a kind of revenge:

The entire village was at his mercy. He took down two M2 carbines. He loaded them with ammunition, slung one across his chest, and held the other in a shooting position. [. . .] As the fog rolled in, the crunch of gravel under his feet and the bullets rattling in his pockets were the only things he could hear.

Each story is a clever investigation into the tensions between the personal and the communal, violence and peace—particularly in the lives of women. The moments of true horror are carefully rationed, showing the author’s mastery of atmospheric suspense. Yet she makes no real conclusions or judgments—the stories are cold cases. Ha peels back the layers encasing crimes of hatred, misogyny, and despair, but never quite lays blame or follows them through to see justice done. Is the jury out, or is she leaving the verdict to the reader? Perhaps she is unwilling to appease our need for a moral to the story—after all, these aim to be depictions of real life, not fables.

After an acclaimed debut, Bluebeard’s First Wife is a forceful and impressive second collection. These stories succeed in unsettling us, not only by exposing our worst nightmares about what lies behind forbidden doors, but also by asking us whose fault it was to enter. The answer is clear, isn’t it?

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