A fresh and terrifying exploration of the ethics of art making and of the stinging consequences of neglect.
For a book full of so much mystery, the creative mission of Han Yujoo’s The Impossible Fairy Tale is remarkable for its author's openness about choices regarding how to tell stories, how an author reveals information, and the dissecting and peeling away of the layers of artifice inherent in the reading and writing of fiction.
Broken into two parts, Part I begins with Mia, an average twelve-year-old in an average neighborhood attending an average school in South Korea in the 1990s. She is concerned with moving up to middle school, getting a new pullover, and trying out a new haircut that her mother surely wouldn’t like. It is also noted that Mia’s name means both “beautiful child” and “lost child,” dual markers that make the reader want to pay attention to her even though she carries on like as one might expect of a schoolgirl. However, Part I soon alternates from Mia’s story to that of the Child—described as more monstrous than human—a peer who is not even given a name. The Child is mostly ignored by her fellow students and completely ignored by the few adults that populate the novel. Every day, the Child comes to class with a new wound, be it covered bruises or a fingernail yanked clean off, leaving behind a wounded, bloody nub. Even with her stark abuses and injuries, The Child is meant to be erased, both by her thoughts and the author’s.
She wishes she could be erased. But every time she tries to erase herself, she only grows darker. Every day, she grows darker. Enough for her body to gobble up her shadow. At school, she exists like a shadow. Or she has become a shadow and is absent.
The Child is able to lurk and ooze, yet she is not the only alarming aspect of this fifth-grade classroom. The adults, both parents and teachers, are always on the periphery, if not completely absent. The homeroom teacher is entirely oblivious to a horrid game the boys play in the back of the classroom called the fainting game, which entails choking each other until losing consciousness. The children also buy baby chicks from a street vendor with the intent of dropping them to their deaths from the roof of a building. Horror and violence permeate their lives and the narrative. Even happy Mia who likes her colored pencils and chatting with her desk mate, often perks up to explain that a fountain pen would be an ideal murder weapon, or so she once read in a detective novel.
The Child has a story too, but as she is constantly erasing herself, her actions throughout each chapter become more vividly heightened. With an unknown identity, the reasons for her behavior are frightening and enigmatic. After school hours, she sneaks back into the classroom and writes extra lines in the other students’ journals: “I hate you;” “Park Yeongwu killed the chick;” “I want to kill, too.” To the Child, she is revealing the children’s secrets, because otherwise the explicit thoughts written down for the privy of their homeroom teacher are generally mundane. When the teacher reads these addenda, he is horrified and threatens to get the police involved if no one steps forward to claim responsibility. In a world where the adults do not notice children strangling each other on a daily basis, it becomes even more horrifying that a generally benign transgression is what the teacher focuses on and takes seriously.
The bluntness of the violence is shocking, but somehow a natural part of the world that the author has built. It propels the narrative forward without ever quite normalizing it. The book creeps into the realm of horror reminding the reader that fairy tales were not originally stories of fluffy princesses and riches, but tales of nefarious sharp-toothed monsters, and atrocious and brutal outcomes. Part I ends with a provocative, but somehow anticipated ending.
In Part II, Han plays with a more experimental narrative, and while it does not have the same grounded feeling as Part I, the examination of storytelling is at the forefront. Here the narrative voice moves to first person, a mostly unknown narrator probing the events leading up to the shocking end of Part I. It's this narrator who questions what it is to write, how a story is told, and how an author manipulates the reader through the artifice of fiction.
Don’t be deceived by these words. I can package a certain story as a dream and tell it that way. I can disguise my childhood, and as I disguise it I can make allusions, and as I reveal details about allusions, I can make them appear fictitious, and in this way, I can deceive you all.
Explicitly name-checked with admiration by the narrator of Part II is Maurice Blanchot’s Death Sentence, a short work about the inability to write a story until time has passed. Death Sentence acts as a sort of key for reading the more opaque second-half of the novel. Bits of Part I are re-written and magnified with the idea of reading and writing as a shared experience. It’s as if the author is asking the reader, what do you expect from a story?
Janet Hong's translation retains Han's idiosyncratic play, her sense of mystery in language and thought. This play is so important to the project of the novel, wherein Han rewrites and reiterates details, words, and phrases, and scenarios. She is at her best in the concrete details of the novel, like the repeated images of the Child’s nubby, painful fingers, and Mia’s beloved expensive colored pencils. Less successful are those passages where the author is emphasizing a connection between an abstractraction—for example, a character’s dream—and the folded pathways of written language. During these less successful moments of recursive language, Han's constructs can hinder the momentum of her story-telling, occasionally even slipping into sloppy lyricism: “Brick you don’t look at brick me. Brick words don’t remember brick words. Brick dawn, brick morning, brick evening, brick night.” In these moments it can be difficult to unpack the author's intent. But that’s fine. The Impossible Fairy Tale is gripping in its horror, making commonplace environments completely unsettling, and the examination of story-telling itself, a curious endeavor.