Recently, I found myself with a stack of “must read fiction” in my hands, describing why each would make a good choice for a particular kind of reader—based on genre, style, and setting. Running my eyes down the pile I wasn’t surprised to see I’d unwittingly selected books by women. I’m well aware of my bias towards women novelists. I remember my second-grade teacher noticing the only books I picked out of our classroom library were written by women. On questioning, I couldn’t give a good reason why I had little interest in chapter books bearing men’s names down their spines.
So, having collected books into this “must read fiction” pile over the course of a few days, it was no wonder the stack towered with women. With one worthy exception: THIS BURNS MY HEART by Samuel Park.
Anyone who’s had the gift of reading Park’s writing will understand why his powerful novel set in 1960s South Korea found a home among the strong feminine writers I hold dear.
Reading THIS BURNS MY HEART was an astonishing experience: I’d been prepped for a “good” novel following a wife’s unhappy marriage and dreams of love and success. I was not prepared for the breathless emotional journey of an extraordinary woman whose hard-fought aspirations are called violently to a halt. A character filled with so much nuance in her longing and love, your heart yearns and breaks alongside hers. Pages rich with historical setting, detailing the rapid changes in post-war Korea and the resulting friction between tradition and modernity. A mother’s deep well of sacrifice and the drama of acknowledging the ties that bind.
Simply put, “good” does not begin to describe the phenomenal heroine at the center of Park’s novel, Soo-Ja Choi. A beautiful and ambitious young woman, at the start of the novel she’s filled with dreams of a life of culture and adventure. Despite her feelings for another radical medical student, Soo-Ja agrees to marry her besotted suitor, Min, when he promises they’ll move to Seoul so she can pursue a diplomatic career.
All too soon, Soo-Ja realizes the value of Min’s word, and her life shrinks to the confines of a traditional household and tyrannical in-laws. Her only refuge is in her daughter Hana, whose gender also creates suffering and shame from her husband’s family. As years pass and South Korea grows from an impoverished nation into an economic powerhouse, Soo-Ja confronts the existential crisis of whether to follow your heart or your mind, discovering the damning limitations and soaring joys in each.
I adored this novel and have urged it into as many hands as possible. Looking for the next Korean historical drama after PACHINKO? Done. Were you carried away by the women’s struggles in A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS? This is your book club’s next selection. Can’t stop thinking about themes of institutional repression and the double-edge of love and duty in AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE? Here you go.
Park, who sadly passed away at age 40 in 2017 from stomach cancer, was often asked about his remarkable ability to write such an unforgettable female heroine as Soo-Ja. The answer lay not only in his years of craft and deep research into post-war Korean life, but being raised on stories of his mother’s life following the Korean War. With two sisters and a storytelling matriarch, Park grew up observing women and how their deep inner lives were often only revealed in private.
Logically, I understand the skill and talent which go into penning complex heroines. That Park’s years of perception and examining the emotional lives of the women around him—in his family, on the page, his friendships—lent an inevitability to Soo-Ja’s characterization, and an unconscious need for a women’s expression. Flipping through THIS BURNS MY HEART, I like to think Park reached for this female voice as naturally, and intuitively, as I reach for them on the shelf.
P.S. Park’s final novel THE CAREGIVER will be published in September. Trust me, you have to read it.