Review: The Impossible Fairy Tale

The Impossible Fairy Tale
By Han Yujoo, translated from the Korean by Janet Hong
Graywolf Press, 2017

I did not think that experimental realistic horror turned challenge-to-the-very-nature-of-storytelling was a genre I was missing from my life, but Han Yujoo proved me wrong.

The Impossible Fairy Tale is a story in two parts. The first part of the book is the story of two children, the Child and Mia. The Child is a luckless child who has learned to make herself effectively invisible as a means of escaping abuse at home. Mia is a lucky child, the sort of child who can “have anything, as long as there is time.” The Child inspires pity and horror in the skill set she has honed from years of pain, while Mia inspires comfort to the point of annoyance in her run-of-the-mill problems and equally expected manipulative ways of overcoming those problems. Both are students in the same fifth grade class, a class that delights in playing the “choking game” while the teacher is out of the room and inventing new ways to murder the chicks they buy after school from street vendors.

The plot begins when the Child sneaks into the classroom after hours and adds sentences worthy of inclusion in a horror novel to the end of every student’s journal, taking care to copy their handwriting. The next morning, the teacher knows someone has done this, but doesn’t know who, so instead issues a false threat to take the children down to the police station. This threat sends the Child on a downward spiral fueled by panic, a spiral that cumulates in several actions that seem unthinkable, even against the backdrop of such a murderous culture in her peers. We  watch her slowly unravel in her obsession to leave no trace of evidence and begin to succumb to her own violent nature.

The story takes a sharp turn when we meet the narrator of the story, first in her dreams and then in her waking life. Soon after, her fictional creation, the Child, enters her life and begins to push the narrator to grapple with the fact that the narrator created so much agony for someone so young. More than that, the Child tries to force the narrator to confront that the narrator was the one who did all the horrible things we read as the Child doing, the Child only serving as a vehicle. The narrator doesn’t confront the realities, instead continuing her God-playing by marveling at her creation and continuing to write and rewrite the Child’s realities in real time. As a result, where the first part chillingly examines humanity and cruelty, the relationship between the adult and the child, and the obsessive quality of panic and fear, the second part attempts but ultimately fails to explore the role of the artist and the consequences of creation.

The greatest weakness of this book is the sharp contrast in the experience of reading two parts. The first part of the story was so strongly grounded in fear, pain, apathy, anger, and all the emotions that we hate to feel but feel anyway, that it read almost like an expose of our species, bringing to the foreground all the things we try to forget about ourselves and what we are capable of. The second part of the story centered around a narrator who lacked empathy and relied to too heavily on abstract metaphors that became frustrating first in their impenetrability and then in their overuse, a combination that proved to be lethal to investment in the story. The world never beckoned, never reverberated, never spoke on a deeper level. The first part was an exhilarating exploration; the second, merely a boring story. Simply put, the second part was a disappointment.

Han’s writing is stunning, haunting, and chilling. Her manipulation of language is a work of art in and of itself, to the point that I can’t even imagine its brilliance in Korean if a translation is so impactful. The whole book makes me wish that our bookstore had a whole section for experimental writing, just so this book doesn’t get lost in the vast world of fiction. But even the writing suffered when Han used more abstract ideas and metaphors, especially when she got tied up in repetition of words and phrases. While the first part the novel was difficult to stop thinking about, the second was difficult to remember as soon as I put the book down. While the lackluster second part dips into my adoration of the novel, it reads like an inventor whose experiment didn’t quite get to where they wanted to go.

The Impossible Fairy Tale is riveting, inventive, and brilliantly painful in its language, craft, and story. There are parts of humanity that we wouldn’t mind keeping locked in the closet or examining only at a very long arm’s length. Despite a weaker second part than first, the ultimate goal is achieved:  you will see the whites of the eyes of those devils within us all.

[Photo credit: Graywolf Press]

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