Review: Robert Young on Han Yujoo’s Novel The Impossible Fairy Tale

If there’s one word that can be used to describe Han Yujoo’s novel, The Impossible Fairy Tale, it would be unique. Yujoo’s first novel published in English by Graywolf Press is a tour de force and totally unlike anything I’ve ever read before. The world of The Impossible Fairy Tale is dreamlike, and the way that Yujoo carries the reader from scene to scene is both mind bendingly chaotic and strikingly beautiful. The Impossible Fairy Tale finds beauty in monotony, in violence, and in a dreamscape of resonant emotion.

Yujoo’s narrative centers on two school children, Mia, a lucky girl who gets everything she wants, ostensibly the hero of this impossible fairy tale, and the Child, a girl so unremarkable and unnoticed that she doesn’t even warrant a name. But lurking under the romantic veneer of a fairy tale of childhood is a dark and frightening story. Early on the narrator establishes that something is off with these children, and the way they are presented truly captures the mind of a child and the way it approaches violence and death. One night the Child breaks into the school and writes additional sentences in all of her fellow classmate’s journals. These dark sentences, such as: “A broken umbrella is useless,” “Mom will get angry again,” and “I want to kill, too,” kick off a series of events that end in terrible violence.

Tonally, the novel is both eerie and haunting as well as startlingly beautiful and abstract. The Impossible Fairy Tale was a difficult book to read, which is both a warning and a point in its favor, as putting hard work into finishing it was incredibly rewarding. But be wary, reader, this is not a simple novel. It’s a book that does not hold the hand of the reader, and demands attention. If the reader is willing to give into the weirdness of the style they shall be rewarded. Said writing style is unique in its winding, stream of consciousness way. The narrative turns back in on itself, circles around on tangents, and sometimes stops entirely. In between moments of narrative weight, the novel will paint a few pictures of vivid vignettes of seemingly unrelated characters, situations, or events. But deftly, like a practiced painter using all of the colors on her palette, Yujoo returns to these elements in ways that are at once unexpected and surprising.

The chapters of this novel range in size, but all have this sense of building towards something. Yujoo writes with a repetitiveness that hammers home this sense of dread and futility. With short and simple sentences like “The cold Child is cold. The cold Child sheds cold blood. The cold blood is cold. Only statements that repeat the same words are good,” Yujoo crafts an eerie, monotonous, and haunting. Repetition adds to this sense of inevitability, as if there’s something terrible coming that we can’t avert. And by continuing to read, we are participating in bringing this terrible violence about. The whole novel is dripping with this sense of encroaching dread, but it’s mixed in with a beautiful plainness that makes the novel carry with it this weighty feeling of even the slightest action or smallest description being drenched in meaning.

I won’t spoil anything for anyone who intends to read it, and I highly recommend that you do, but suffice to say, halfway through the novel something major happens, but rather than continue on from that point in a way that the reader expects, Yujoo completely subverts any and all expectations that the reader has. In the second half of the novel, Yujoo takes a sharp left turn, and the entire book is flipped on its head in a way that is both totally unexpected, and incredibly interesting. Without giving too much away, I’ll simply say that The Impossible Fairy Tale embraces its unique weirdness and begins to deconstruct narrative, fairy tales, and storytelling in general.

The Impossible Fairy Tale is many things: violent, beautiful, simple, complex, and mind boggling to name a few. It is a dense novel with much to unpack and discuss. Yujoo’s style of writing narrative curves and twists. It folds in on itself, reverses course, backtracks, repeats itself, and forges onward in completely uncharted territory. It’s a book unlike anything I’ve ever read before: at times a stream of conscious dream evoking poetry, and at other times a nail biting tale of brutal suspense. It runs the gamut of many disparate emotions, and it’s a book that I’ve continued to obsess over long after finishing it.

The Impossible Fairy Tale, by Han Yujoo (translated from the Korean by Janet Hong). Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, March 2017. $16.00, paper.

Robert Young was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He has an MA in Creative Writing from Ball State University where he was the Lead Poetry Editor for the 2015 issue of the Broken Plate. His work has been published in Midwestern Gothic, Noble/Gas Qtrly, and The Evansville Review. In the fall, he will be studying poetry in the MFA program at UMass Boston.

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