Monday, 17 September 2018

Princess Bari by Hwang Sok-Yong

Princess Bari by Hwang Sok-Yong
First published in South Korea in Korean in 2007. English language translation by Sora Kim-Russell published in the UK by Periscope in 2015.

My 2000s read for my 2018-19 Decade Challenge

How I got this book:
Bought the ebook from Amazon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Where to buy this book:

The Book Depository
Wordery (unavailable)
Waterstones (unavailable)
Amazon US / Amazon UK

In a drab North Korean city, a seventh daughter is born to a couple longing for a son. Abandoned hours after her birth, she is eventually rescued by her grandmother. The old woman names the child Bari, after a legend telling of a forsaken princess who undertakes a quest for an elixir that will bring peace to the souls of the dead. As a young woman, frail, brave Bari escapes North Korea and takes refuge in China before embarking on a journey across the ocean in the hold of a cargo ship, seeking a better life. She lands in London, where she finds work as a masseuse. Paid to soothe her clients' aching bodies, she discovers that she can ease their more subtle agonies as well, having inherited her beloved grandmother's uncanny ability to read the pain and fears of others. Bari makes her home amongst other immigrants living clandestinely. She finds love in unlikely places, but also suffers a series of misfortunes that push her to the limits of sanity. Yet she has come too far to give in to despair.

Princess Bari is a captivating novel that leavens the grey reality of cities and slums with the splendour of fable. Hwang Sok-yong has transfigured an age-old legend and made it vividly relevant to our own times.

Princess Bari is a beautifully written novel which blends elements of fairytale and mythological stories which modern-day migrant experiences. In common with The Beast Of Kukuyo which I reviewed a few days ago, this is another book that I chose almost on a whim for its author's nationality, and which turned out to be a very rewarding read! I loved Hwang's use magical realism (Daniela at Bookiverse, this is absolutely a book for you!) which frequently transports both the reader and Bari from the horrific situations in which she finds herself. The claustrophobic cargo ship journey is one example and I found this all the more upsetting for knowing that, although this novel is fiction, these scenes are essentially true to real life. I felt the timelessness of Hwang's writing style in his retelling of this ancient legend reminded me that Bari's experience (and the experiences of thousands like her) are by no means only a modern phenomenon.

Hwang's use of contrast makes aspects of Princess Bari particularly memorable, but also serves to illustrate that certain situations share greater similarities than we might care to admit. Bari's life in China isn't so far removed from her London experiences. The types of people she encounters on her journeys tend to repeat patterns too. A person's moral compass certainly isn't determined by whereabouts in the world their family originated! Hwang's characters share more, perhaps, with traditional story stereotypes, but the novel in no way suffers for this. I understood that although several characters are depicted as Good or Bad, there is also a wide middle ground of grey: people who could make a tremendous difference through relatively small actions on their part, fail to do so whether through ignorance or simple misunderstandings. As with all great fairytales and legends, Princess Bari can be read at its simplest level as just a story, or can be dissected for deeper meaning and symbolism. A fascinating novel which would, I think, make for energetic book club discussions.

Search Lit Flits for more:
Books by Hwang Sok-Yong / Contemporary fiction / Books from South Korea


  1. I really think I would enjoy this from the setting, rich culture to the characters. Lovely reviewly

    1. Thanks Kimberly :-)
      I hope you get the chance to try this one

  2. Love modern retellings of fairytales and mythological stories. Also love the magical realism. I love that the character went outside her comfort zone to make a life for herself. I’m excited to read this story! Thanks Stephanie! ❤️❤️

    1. I hope you get the chance to enjoy this novel. I loved the blend of mythical and real life