Familiar Things by Hwang Sok-yong, Sora Kim-Russell

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“People live here, just like anywhere else.” She said.

“People? All I see are flies and garbage.  It stinks.”

It may be garbage now, but they say it turns to gold.” His mother said playfully.

Flower Island may as well be another world existing outside the city in South Korea. A landfill where families and single people dig through the trash for recyclable goods for their survival, Flower Island certainly doesn’t live up to its pretty name. Stinking of the rot around them, empty bellied and looked down upon by the citizens, 14-year-old Bugeye and his mother find themselves living in a shack after his father’s internment. There is little hope, and even less food. He is quick to learn that the ‘rich’, fortunate city people throw away food that is still good, even if he has to fight the flies for it. The things they throw away are so beautiful and new that people are quick to accuse the inhabitants of the trash heap of theft. Oh to be so rich, so wasteful, he can’t even imagine it. It isn’t long before he befriends an unusual boy with problems of his own. Baldspot is the son of the crew leader (Baron) and tells him his father thinks he is stupid, noting the boy seems a little slow, Bugeye is wise enough to understand it benefits him to get on the good side of this odd boy.  When Baldspot shows him mysterious blue lights, there is something spooky about them, and maybe something magical too, but he isn’t sure he is ready to find out.

The boys will become as close as brothers and find the lights are spirits that live in a sort of parallel world to their own only without the horrors they face, the trash or ugly shacks. But why are they here, what do they want? As good fortune lands on Bugeye, it’s hard to trust whether it’s a gift or his doom. Bugeye is well aware of how other people live, with their clean clothes, education, and plenty of food. There are many shaming encounters, especially when he goes into the city with Baldspot with money in his pocket, trying to give the younger boy a little joy. Even charity, and free food from the church has a way of making the poverty striken children feel shame. The smell that follows them is one city people can’t abide, and maybe the good women care more for being seen giving charity than being around the urchins. But food is food, pride won’t keep your belly fully.

Can ancient spirits change Bugeye and Baldspot’s dismal futures, or will life continue to strip the boys until they are nothing but bones? This novel hits you in the gut, it’s hard to imagine this is actually the life other people live, particularly from our beautiful homes full of stuff we don’t really need for survival. Bugeye and his mother are down to the basics, and barely that. To my mind, the scariest horror story is a life without basic necessities and that through the joy of Baldspot, there is still happiness to be had is humbling. This is the sort of story that makes you feel so far removed from true suffering that it induces shame for having so much. It’s a quick read with a gut punch at the end. Folklore meets tragic existance.

Publication Date: June 8, 2018

Scribe Publications

 

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