Shoko’s Smile by Choi Eunyoung review – intimate connections and political backdrops

Shoko’s Smile has already sold more than 200,000 copies in South Korean author Choi Eunyoung’s home country. Reading these seven excellent stories, translated by Sung Ryu, it’s easy to see why. Each is written with sober detail, filmic precision and absolute control. Everything, from the three-decade occupation of Korea by Japan to the consequences of the Vietnam war, is explored with the lightest of touches and without losing sight of the central characters’ motivations and personalities.

In the title story, a Japanese girl comes to stay with the narrator on a school exchange trip. This visit becomes the root of a long association – not quite friendship, not quite enmity – between the two girls. Neither girl achieves her dreams, as is recounted with deadpan baldness: “Those were the days when I believed my life would turn out special. I secretly sneered at cowards who compromised with reality. But this silly arrogance of mine is the reason why I am nothing now.” The story touches upon the pull between family ties and personal desire, the influence of grandparents, the easiness of revealing emotions to strangers and the difficulty of doing so with loved ones. In this story, as in all of them, letters, notes and diaries enable characters to express how they really feel, but can’t say.

In Hanji and Youngju, a failed romance between volunteer workers at a European monastery retreat explores a new kind of international community based on shared values (and shared privilege) as well as the attraction of contemplative places for a young, searching generation. Despite the characters’ best intentions, the story is full of missed connections: “We had resorted to every means, except fighting, to tolerate each other. We didn’t even have the desire to vent our emotions or bad-mouth each other to see how the other would react. You would need at least a shred of affection for fights to happen.”

In Xin Chào, Xin Chào, a Korean family on a visit to post-unification 1990s Germany are hosted there by some friends, a Vietnamese expat family. Told from the point of view of the young Korean daughter, it’s a mortifyingly awkward depiction of social isolation, racism, war trauma and youthful ignorance as the issue of Korean complicity in the Vietnam war is broached unthinkingly by the children at the dinner table while the parents are paralysed with embarrassment.

Shoko’s Smile is an incredibly impressive collection told with realism, seriousness and moral integrity. The stories are painful and complex but never depressing. They show what it’s like to be an ordinary person with a painful past and an unknowable future, living out the years in the cold light of day.

Shoko’s Smile by Choi Eunyoung, translated by Sung Ryu, is published by Penguin (£12.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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