I thought about this when I came to review these two novels, both about reconnecting with people from our pasts. In the first, a man has largely forgotten his childhood sweetheart, as well as the slum in which they both grew up. In the second, a woman feels a surprisingly strong connection with an older woman she visited for only an hour as a child.
At Dusk by Hwang Sok-yong translated by Sora Kim-Russell
He used to meet Cha Soona, whose parents ran a noodle shop, in the library after school. But it wouldn’t do for them to be seen together in the neighbourhood and, when Minwoo left for university, he was hurt, and then relieved, when she became involved with another boy. With marriage, and studies in America, he soon forgot to the girl he once thought unobtainable. She, however, never forgot him.
Minwoo’s narrative is interspersed with the struggles of the girl who brought the note from Cha Soona: an actor and budding theatre director who makes ends meet only by working nights at a convenience store. Tragedy connects her with Minwoo’s childhood sweetheart for which he, albeit only indirectly, is partly responsible. His company, now under investigation for corruption, abetted the slum clearance when people were savagely driven from their homes.
I expected to enjoy this rags-to-riches story entwined with a morality tale about the politics of modernisation and urban renewal. But, with a broad sweep of characters, and the secondary strand for a long time apparently unconnected to the first, I often felt as if I were wandering through a city where the familiar landmarks had been demolished and no new ones yet erected in their place.
First published in Korean, my English translation came courtesy of Scribe publications.
Where to Find Me by Alba Arikha
Fleeing to Palestine, she fell in love with the wrong man. Although to her he seemed a gentleman, Ezra was a militant Zionist who planted a bomb that took several lives. Flora returned to Paris, and later moved from there to London, until, once again, love brought not happiness but pain. Finally finding contentment in marriage to a famous concert pianist, she writes her memoir in a notebook no-one sees.
When Hannah meets Flora, they’re neighbours in Notting Hill. Flora’s a widow, polite but slightly aloof, while Hannah’s a teenager in a family grief is tearing apart. Although they meet for only an hour, and Flora moves away not long after, both feel a strong connection. Nineteen years later, Hannah receives Flora’s memoir, along with a box of her books.
Alba Arikha’s characters are fully-fleshed women with interesting stories which, however, fall slightly short of a plot. Their meeting, and its consequence, seems strained narratively, and doesn’t gain sufficient momentum until towards the end. I felt more could have been made of Hannah’s meddling (which I’m blaming on the child psychologist she saw after the family tragedy) – or less, by focusing on Flora, whose journey makes a more interesting tale – so the book doesn’t cohere as much as I would have liked. Fortunately the writing’s strong enough for this not to matter too much. Thanks to Alma Books for my review copy.
 Although well-intentioned, the therapy would have been more successful in alleviating Hannah and her brother's guilt if they'd been seen as a family unit.
If you’re interested in the theme of messages from the past, my short story “Telling the Parents” features this in an unusual manner. Here I am reading the opening.