Friday, August 18, 2023

Book Review: The Owl Cries by Hye-young Pyun

 A forest was a plurality and a totality. Meanwhile, he was always only him.

A lawyer comes into a small village bordering a huge forest in search of his missing brother, whom he believes worked as a ranger there. The current ranger, a recovering alcoholic with serious issues in his family, In-su Park, doesn't know who worked there before him. The shopkeepers in the village also claim not to have seen him. When death strikes unexpectedly, In-su Park is dragged into the mystery, and a struggle for survival ensues.

The Owl Cries is the upcoming English translation of a Korean novel by Hye-young Pyun, an ebook copy of which I received through Netgalley and Skyhorse Publishing in exchange for honest feedback. The book is to be published in October 2023 and is translated from Korean by Sora Kim-Russel. After fully reading the novel and trying to find details about the author on Google, I realised that this is the first Korean novel that I have read. I have watched many Korean movies and read a book by Korean-American journalist Euny Hong, titled The Birth of Korean Cool, but I have never read a full-fledged novel.

The novel can be termed a genre-defying attempt, as the author uses tropes that are overused in different genres to tell the story. It starts like an investigation mystery and soon evolves into a psychological thriller. In certain parts, she creates a Kafkaesque maze, especially with the progression of the character of In-su Park. The author finally decides to park her plot in ambiguous territory. I loved her choice, but most casual readers may not, because for the advancement of the story, she has explored multiple genres effectively, and many readers who like genre fiction would crave a satisfying ending.

The ambiguity of the plot extends to the characters of the novel too. Instead of using a central human character, around whom the entire plot is structured, the writer chooses the forest as the binding element that influences all human characters. The forest acquires a central identity and influences the greed, terror, anxiety, and addiction of humans. It is established very clearly when many characters who have every reason to run away from the village to any distant town to continue their lives, end up becoming subservient to the forces of the forest. 

Each character in the novel has a proper character arc, with enough background and motivation for their actions. But curiously, all of these arcs are left incomplete for the imaginative reader to fill up. The resulting dissatisfaction may prove to be a positive factor for motivated readers, but many readers who are in for a proper plot with a beginning and a proper ending will close this novel unsatisfied. This is a necessary pitfall of combining genre and literary fiction. 

The predominant theme of the novel is, I feel, loneliness. Each character in the novel is a lonely sole who tries to get out of it or deals with it in their own way. The writer tries to contrast the plurality of the forest with the singularity of human characters. The forest appears as a single entity, though it consists of numerous individual trees. Even when individual trees fall, it never affects the constitution of the forest. It imposes a kind of hypnotic terror on humans. To conquer the forest, three wood cutters are forced to work as a single unit. They become more than their single existence for a short time. But once they stop logging trees, they go back to their lonely lives. Control over the forest is the undefeated metaphoric victory that everyone in this novel aspires for and eventually fails to achieve.

The Owl Cries is a novel that may work if you are ready to go beyond the labels and brackets imposed by the publishing industry for their ease of doing business and if you are fine with ambiguity in your plots. It has some wonderfully written characters and a relentless, tense atmosphere that can put a chill in the reader's mind.

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