“River of Fire” is an anthology of some of O Chonghui’s short stories written over the course of her career. There is a feeling of displacement and futility in many of the stories, all of which are told through female narrators. It extends beyond gender in Korean culture. There is emotional deprivation and detachment in lives limited to survival. It is not the under-belly that is being revealed, it is the condition of the society in the post Korean War period. The short story for which this anthology is named, captures the edginess of the characters, who are one spark away from lighting up the condition of their lives.
The anthology begins with “The Toy Shop Woman”; the story which first got the author noticed. It is told from the perspective of an emotionally troubled teenager, who escapes from her dysfunctional family to a paraplegic doll shop store owner. Hers is a half-life, rapidly losing radiation.
Coke and cigarettes appear to be a daily diet in “One Spring Day”. They are addictions that can be relied upon when a housewife’s lonely existence can’t be pierced as age creeps in to deprive her of the allure that might cool her heat.
The beauty of childhood innocence is hard to kill, leaving an indelible mark that is later juxtaposed against a genealogy of cheating and failed husbands. ” A Portrait of Magnolias” tries to paint over the blossom of an unfulfilled marriage with the ecstasy of a mutually lonely one-night stand.
“Morning Star” is a story of a post-college evening drinking reunion. The narrator is a married woman whose life experience is separated from that of her friends who remain single and in careers.
“Fireworks” could have been a sequel to “One Spring Day”, but to me it is a disjointed story that meanders too far afield.
“Lake P’aro” is a later work. It is a woman’s search for identity during the course of an archaeological excursion. The woman takes the trip with a friend of her husband, who remains in the U.S. with their child. The woman was maritally and culturally displaced in the U.S.. Despite the fact that a dam had displaced more recent villages, the land reveals life from earlier periods when it was dry. The story is not as dark as the rest of the anthology and reflects change in South Korea and its culture.
“The Old Well” plows age and marital relationships. Part folktale in form, like “Fireworks” its subsidiary paths do not add to the story in my view.
I may have failed this book, as I was somewhat distracted while reading it. Like other works which are dark and sometimes disturbing, it did not generate much enthusiasm in me. This is not a failure of the work as it is likely honest writing. The translators have won awards for their translations, but I wonder if the stories read better in Korean. O Chonghui has won awards for a number of her short stories, but none of them were included in this anthology. I would have liked to have read one of them as a point of comparison.