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Booker International Longlist 2023 – Whale


And we are off…

Book 1Whale by Cheon Myeong-kwan Translated by Chi-Young Kim

Reviewed by Bookworm, Rachel & Tracy 

Synopsis from Booker Prize website: An adventure-satire of epic proportions, which sheds new light on the changes Korea experienced in its rapid transition from pre-modern to post-modern society.

Set in a remote village in South Korea, Whale follows the lives of three linked characters: Geumbok, an extremely ambitious woman who has been chasing an indescribable thrill ever since she first saw a whale crest in the ocean; her mute daughter, Chunhui, who communicates with elephants; and a one-eyed woman who controls honeybees with a whistle. A fiction that brims with surprises and wicked humour, from one of the most original voices in South Korea

BookWorm’s Thoughts:  I really enjoyed the start of this book with the old woman and the curse on the town and following Geumbok through her early life and how she manages to survive in a man’s world with practically everything against her.  Then when we moved onto a detailed study of Chunhui’s life the story became the usual brutal Booker kind of story and for a while it lost me. The brutal section was partially redeemed for me through the ending which was beautiful.

Overall I enjoyed most of the story I liked the way the author spoke to the reader and reminded me of certain things as we went along but some sections did fall foul of repetition.

Writing quality: 4/5
Originality: 3/5
Character development: ¾
Plot development: ¾
Overall enjoyment: ½
Total: 14/20

Rachel’s Thoughts: Where to begin? I’ve been putting off reviewing this for a good month. Whale is fantastical, rambling, absorbing and larger than life with strong storytelling, spectacular imagery and more than a few surprises. I even shed a few tears at the end.

And yet, it’s more than a little problematic. The women are strong and independent, gender norms are challenged, almost every character has a disability or disfigurement. But the world is viewed through breasts and penis-size, characters are defined by their abnormalities and rape and abuse of all kinds are rife and never questioned. As a take on the modern history of Korea (as some blurbs describe it) I simply don’t have the background to ‘get’ it. As a satire-in-translation, I’m not too sure what else I’m not getting.

I’m very much looking forward to seeing what greater minds than mine make of it. My feelings about this book are, in the words of StoryGraph, ‘it’s complicated!’

Writing quality: 4/5
Originality: 4/5
Character development: ¾
Plot development: ¾
Overall enjoyment: 1.5/2
Total: 15.5/20

Tracy’s Thoughts: So far, this is the best of the crowd for me. A little magical realism, a little escape to another time (?) and place. Certainly, this had writing that kept my attention and my enjoyment.

Even though there was no plot, just a jumpy timeline, it was an easy to follow story about a woman and her daughter, and the many businesses and relationships along the way to the Whale- the final business, a movie theater. I wish there had been more books chosen that were as enjoyable as this one.

Writing quality: 4.5/5
Originality: 4.5/5
Character development: 4/4
Plot development: 2/4
Overall enjoyment: 2/2
Total: 17/20

Whale 15.5

Have you read this one? Let us know your thoughts

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