Ask anyone with at least one eye on world literature in translation which countries are putting out the most groundbreaking novels, and they will likely mention South Korea. Korean novels frequently bend and break genres, explore often untouched social and political themes, and speak to our very souls.
Outstanding Korean Novels in Translation
If you’re looking for the best Korean novels in English translation, this list of ten is the perfect place to start. Many of the Korean authors (and translators) mentioned here have entire libraries available for you to explore once you’ve exhausted this list.
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A note on names: In Korea, family names come first, and publishers of Korean novels in translation seem to often disagree over whether or not to flip them for English language readers. Some do, some don’t. You get used to it.
Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-joo
Translated by Jamie Chang
Approaching a book like Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is an enormous undertaking; something that should be done with real consideration. The novel has sold over a million copies in its native South Korea, has been adapted into a successful Korean film, and has been a huge spark for the fires of the #metoo movement in South Korea.
Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is a novel that has achieved so much, done so much good, and is now finally available to English-speaking readers. Even knowing where to begin with reviewing it is a trial. This book is important. It really matters.
Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 can be seen as the novelisation of the lived experiences of every ordinary Korean woman for the past forty years. It traces the life of a single woman from early childhood to marriage and motherhood.
The book begins with her being given an appointment with a psychiatrist in 2016 after she has developed a disturbing condition wherein she impersonates the voices of, and embodies the personalities of, the women in her life both alive and dead.
This condition is what initially introduces us to her character, and it is a very clear statement to the reader that Kim Jiyoung speaks for every ordinary woman of 20th and 21st Century South Korea.
Everything you may have heard about Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 being an impactful and important piece of feminist fiction is true.
It is a book that brings to light the everyday misogyny, sexism, ignorance, aggression, bias, and abuse (both active and passive) that women in South Korea (and, of course, the world over) suffer and do their best to survive in this modern world.
To really get the most out of Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, it’s important to first understand the novel’s purpose. It is not a story with a view to entertaining us. It is a book that enlightens, and encourages anger in, its readers. Kim Jiyoung is not an individual.
She is not a character to form a bond with. She is every abuse victim. She is every woman who has encountered sexism at home, at school, in the workplace, and on the street, and who perhaps never even realised it.
The Plotters by Un-su Kim
Translated by Sora Kim-Russell
The most important thing to note about The Plotters is that it’s billed as a thriller, but it is actually far more than that. Rather than blending genres and emerging as a kind of Frankenstein’s Monster of different styles, The Plotters rather refuses to acknowledge genre. That is what sets this book apart and allows it the chance to surprise its readers chapter after chapter.
The Plotters tells the story of Reseng, a successful assassin raised in The Doghouse Library – a library filled with books but empty of people, somewhere in Seoul – by an enigmatic old man known as Old Raccoon. Reseng has grown up knowing of nothing but the business of assassination, and curiously also knowing very little about that, either.
This is a piece of penetrating fiction driven by its eccentric but grounded characters, providing a unique and entertaining setting and circumstance, and telling a story subtly tied to the history and politics of modern day Korea.
After the Korean War and the separation of the two Koreas along the thirty-eighth parallel, control of North Korea was seized by the Kim regime. What is lesser-known, however, is that South Korea too did not have democratic freedom until the 1980s, suffering through martial law for some decades.
This key aspect of Korean history plays into the story of The Plotters, as the democratisation creates a power struggle amongst assassins and leaves room for a different kind of man to take charge.
Blending this wild and wonderful story of assassins who work from an old library with real-world political events allows for some subtle commentary on the nature of fascism, martial law, democracy, and even capitalism, with regards to how these things affect the kinds of lives people can lead. Even assassins are not immune to political shifts.
The Plotters has to be read to be believed. Its ability to defy genre, allow its plot to be carried along by comedy and eccentric characters, and keep a slow pace that takes its time without losing an ounce of momentum, is truly staggering.
It takes influence from the tumultuous events of South Korea’s recent past without becoming dry and melancholy. Most importantly of all, it is fantastically fun.
The Court Dancer by Kyung-sook Shin
Translated by Anton Hur
Kyung-Sook Shin has a gift for understanding her own people, her own society, with all of its beauty and its failings — this kind of gift is something that might be considered simple for anyone who is from anywhere at all, but that is arguably very far from the truth.
For Shin, each new novel demonstrates new strengths she had not previously revealed; new muscles she has not before flexed. This time she makes the telling of historical fiction seem as effortless as pouring crisp cold water into a glass.
Based on a true story — set in the final years of 19th century Korea as China, Russia, and Japan are threatening the little nation trapped between them — The Court Dancer is being described as a love story first and foremost: the romantic tale of a man and a woman from two different worlds, colliding in a moment of beauty.
And, sure, that’s fine, but really this is the tale of a woman born without a family, adopted into the courts of the Joseon Dynasty, romanced by a French diplomat, whisked away across the waves to foreign shores, and all the while trying to find the time to understand who she is, what she is, and what she wants out of a life that has never really been hers.
It is a tragic tale that transcends place and time to show people of all cultures that a woman’s life must be fought for.
Much of Shin’s earlier writing, in translation, has allowed non-Koreans to experience and understand the mind and the heart of the modern Korean. With The Court Dancer, she has shown us the heart of pre-modern Korea with all the heart and mind she herself always lends to her writing.
Untold Night and Day by Bae Suah
Translated by Deborah Smith
Bae Suah is one of the great contemporary authors of South Korea. Author of A Greater Music, Nowhere to Be Found, and North Station, she has burst onto the stage that is 2020 with a topsy-turvy surrealist tale that feels uncomfortably in-line with the narrative of the 21st Century.
Untold Night and Day is, to borrow author Sharlene Teo’s words, a fever dream of a novel; a book that is unknowably yet aggressively familiar to all of us.
Ayami is a former actress who has worked for two years at a menial position in a tiny, almost entirely unknown, Seoul theatre which puts on auditory performances for blind audiences. She’s approaching thirty, anxious, and unsure of herself in every way imaginable. She also soon discovers that she will soon be out of a job.
What begins as a vivid setup — a drawing with thick black lines — gently begins to grow fuzzy. Ayami’s own colours start to blend, as do those of the story, and of time itself. Reality, for us and for Ayami, slips away and loops in on itself. Surrealism, soon enough, has its nails in us and it won’t allow us to wake up.
There perhaps isn’t a more apt description of Untold Night and Day than ‘fever dream’. This parallel runs deep. At 150 pages, the novel is short – a quick read that, like a fever dream, manages to play deceptively with time and progress.
You’ll wonder how long you’ve had your head in the book before a chapter break eventually allows you to take a breath. You might even emerge sweating and confused.
Untold Night and Day should be read with a clean and sober mind, then talked about after a few vodka shots. It’s a dirty and cracked narrative that encourages questions about our 21st Century world and how we’re living in it.
The novel is, indeed, a Lynchian fever dream, but it demands perseverance and complete absorption. And, honestly, even if you were to try and quit it, the book likely wouldn’t let you. Open it up and let it sink into you as you sink into it.
b, Book, and Me by Kim Sagwa
Translated by Sunhee Jeong
Coming-of-age novels, and stories of self-discovery, can take a variety of forms across myriad genres of fiction, but most are typically grounded in realism, following the rules of their world.
b, Book, and Me is a story of a different sort, leaning on a fever dream surrealism that grows in intensity over time, and using ambiguity and a narrative fog to reinforce the strangeness and frustration felt and experienced by young people year after year. It’s a layered and anxious tale that captures the dangers and mysteries of youth better than most.
The titular b, Book, and Me are our three protagonists: b is a teenage girl from a poor family living in a nameless coastal town in Korea; Book is a friend met along the way who has an obsession with reading and collecting books; and the ‘me’ refers to Rang, our initial narrator and best friend of b.
The novel is split into three parts, with the first following a few clear and beautifully depicted days and memories in the life of Rang. The second follows b and begins to stretch itself into a feverish surrealism that mirrors her own unique fears, struggles, and stresses. The third teams the two up with Book as the walls of reality almost fall away entirely.
b, Book, and Me does an uncanny job of illustrating the often surreal and frightening life of a teenager growing up somewhere unknown, with vague ideas that there is more beyond their world.
The novel’s dreamlike nature is gently poured into the narrative as it moves forward and serves to reinforce the themes of the plot and the nature of its characters. Our protagonists are likeable, their motivations clear, and their world eerily understandable in spite of its impossible qualities.
Rarely does a novel manage to be so abstract and fluid and yet so clearly relatable. b, Book, and Me is a smart, beautifully written, masterfully translated work of Korean fiction that makes for a frightening yet true-to-life story of self-discovery and friendship.
The Hole by Hye-young Pyun
Translated by Sora Kim-Russell
Here is, perhaps, an entirely new kind of frightening. We’re living in a new golden age of horror films right now, and, if Hye-young Pyun’s books are any indication, a parallel golden age of horror writing as well.
The protagonist and narrator of The Hole is the adorably-named Oghi, whom we learn about in two forms:
In flashbacks where Oghi is presented as a successful professor and academic in a marriage falling apart. This provides the disparity between Oghi’s successes and his wife’s failures which cause an uncomfortable rift between them.
And in the present day. We find Oghi after a car crash leaves him unable to move or even speak, only communicating in blinks and the odd twitch of his left hand.
With these contrasting Oghis – the memories of him being confident, at times callous, versus the present day where he is mute and every voice has a patronising tone – create an immediately unsettling paradigm shift.
The reader will find that, after each flashback ends, a kind of anti-catharsis sets in as we remember that, in the present day, Oghi is a prisoner in his own body; a narrator who cannot narrate. This is the first terror of the story.
The other terror comes in the form of Oghi’s mother-in-law, both his caretaker and sole remaining family member. After losing her daughter in the same crash that left Oghi paralysed, his mother-in-law is hardly an emotionally stable caretaker. To say more would be to risk spoiling things.
Where The Hole shines, and wherein lies its true terror, is the state of Oghi’s body and his mind. So much horror and suspense writing relies on running, hiding, chasing, and being lost. But Oghi is not lost, and he cannot run. He is trapped from page one.
In choosing to ignore the tropes which make horror what it has become famous for, Pyun has crafted a very new kind of terror which builds on the writing of Franz Kafka, but with none of the black humour that results in staring into the void. Instead, it replaces that with true, absolute dread which is maintained like a painfully drawn-out musical note for hours, page after page after page.
The White Book by Han Kang
Translated by Deborah Smith
Calling it The White Book feels reductive, almost wrong on purpose. Because The White Book is less a book and more an embracing feeling of familiarity. This book is something you live and feel, and all of this is created by its use of empty space.
Han Kang has created a story unlike any you will have read, but beyond being a story it is very much an exploration of the familiar things in life.
There are beautiful black and white photos throughout the book, taken by Han Kang, which only add to the experience as you try to grapple with the tone of each beautiful image. The White Book has real depth and I can’t help but feel that every reader will have a different experience with it.
Each tiny chapter of this story is titled with the name of a white thing, and the events and musings of the chapter circle its material theme. It is this, coupled with the empty space, that so draws the reader into the very feeling of whiteness. A bleak kind of melancholy peacefulness that takes hold and gently squeezes.
The narrative flits between first and third person, but always centres on the same lone character: a Korean woman, spending a little time living in an unspecified central European city. It is here that our nameless narrator spends her time in introspection, though the exact subject of which I dare not say.
The story has nothing in the way of true dialogue, and its chapters are short with the time between them unclear, but what is clear is the way that the character lessens the weight she carries, eases her feelings, and helps the reader lose the tension they perhaps don’t know they are holding onto as they read.
The White Book is an experience inasmuch as it is a novel. I’d urge all Han Kang fans to read it, but also anyone looking for a very different kind of art; art which is difficult to explain and more difficult to talk about afterwards.
At Dusk by Hwang Sok-yong
Translated by Sora Kim-Russell
Have you ever listened to Big Yellow Taxi? I like the Counting Crows version. Hwang Sok-yong is arguably Korea’s most prestigious and well-respected living author. Following the success of his novels Princess Bari and Familiar Things, we arrive here, At Dusk.
The narrative here is split in two, with the books odd-numbered chapters recalling the life and memories of Park Minwoo, a rags-to-riches architect approaching old age, and the even chapters following the story of Jung Woohee, a twenty-eight-year-old woman who is barely making ends meet by working part-time to fund her passion for writing and directing theatre.
These two narratives have seemingly nothing in common. Until they do.
Park Minwoo’s story is a familiar one: that of a man born into hardship and poverty, working his way through a series of fascinating and intense trials and labours to arrive at the success he always dreamed of.
The interesting twist in the formula here is that, for Park, the trials have always been passed, and now we are treated to a backwards view of his life from the viewpoint of an ageing man who has become disenchanted by his riches and his current social, political, and financial situation.
As for Jung, her tale takes on a very different narrative flavour. It is at once lighter in tone and heavier. Her struggles are in the present, and the immediacy of her pain and her fight for success is felt with real intensity. All the same, she has a lot of personality on show, and her dialogue and her exchanges are packed with vigour.
The theme of the day here is very much in the steadily increasing gravity of regret that weighs down on Park as he considers his role in the modernisation and transformation of modern day Korea.
In his flashbacks he slowly begins to pine for the raw life that he had carved out and survived through in the slums of his childhood, a time when perhaps he felt more alive.
Endless Blue Sky by Lee Hyoseok
Translated by Steven D. Capener
Korea has seen a tumultuous hundred years, with the Japanese occupation, a civil war, and finally a divide carved across its belly, separating North and South. In the midst of such tumult, it is easy for information to be lost.
Fighting back against all of this information loss, and tearing down the barriers of language and time, is the publishing house Honford Star, who began by translating the short stories of many lost Korean writers into English. Endless Blue Sky is Honford Star’s first full-length Korean novel.
The story of Endless Blue Sky begins with our protagonist, the writer Ilma, travelling up to Manchuria for the umpteenth time for business and, while he is there, engaging with a Russian dancer, Nadia, whom he is deeply enamoured with.
Conversing mostly in English, their relationship blossoms quickly; and Nadia, through Ilma, has fallen in love with the fascinating world of Joseon (Korea), demanding to be stolen into it so that she might discover its fashion, its theatre, and its art for herself.
Framing this blossoming romance is a colourful cast of characters, the most eccentric of which being the actress Danyeong, a woman obsessed with separating Ilma from his foreign lover and stealing him away.
Her behaviour is so obscenely cloak-and-dagger that the reader cannot help but picture her, finger to her lips, sneaking a few steps behind Ilma, muttering to herself about love and passion from behind a fake nose and moustache.
More than once, as I read, I considered with a smile that Lee seems to exist as a wonderful opposite to Japan’s Yukio Mishima, a man of far-right conservative values who chose to espouse his nationalistic beliefs through aggressive stories of blood and betrayal.
In much the same way, Lee’s politics are not hidden here, but rather exposed for all to see. The difference is in his opposing beliefs. While Mishima worshipped traditionalism and rejected change, Lee welcomed globalisation, socialism, and the eradication of borders.
While Mishima wrote with angst and rage, Lee wrote with love and celebration, though both wrote from the heart all the same.
Lee Hyoseok was absolutely one of the more fascinating writers of early twentieth-century Korea; a man of thrilling political philosophies and a delightfully European approach to storytelling. Endless Blue Sky is a joy to read, with eccentric characters and a love story that twists and turns with real human depth and agency as it moves on at a swift click.
City of Ash and Red by Hye-young Pyun
Translated by Sora Kim-Russell
From the writer of The Hole (winner of the Shirley Jackson Award 2017), City of Ash and Red is a phenomenal celebration of all that is dark and wrong, and readers are in for a jolly good dystopian time with this one.
Our nameless protagonist (nameless, perhaps, because his name doesn’t matter, or because it’s up for debate), divorced and working as a rat catcher, he is quickly and inexplicably transferred by his company to a country only referred to as C.
Upon arrival he finds the whole country drowning in disease and rubbish, with people being dragged into quarantine, and fear and distrust in the air.
For the duration of his transfer, he has been in contact with someone named Mol, but he soon learns that Mol is not so easy to locate – the name is incredibly common in Country C.
This is the first of a hundred problems that our protagonist faces, as he is soon quarantined, released, has his luggage ‘misplaced’, is told not to come into work for ten days, and receives a call from an old friend who had married our protagonist’s ex-wife, only to be told by this friend that their ex-wife was found dead in our hero’s apartment, and he is a prime suspect.
Any fan of Kafka will recognise parallels between this tale and more than one of old Franz’s, with the key link being an overwhelming feeling of confusion, fear, and frustration. Our protagonist seeks answers, but none are to be found.
He wants to explain himself, but nobody will listen — nobody, in fact, cares. He wants to gain a firm grip on the facts, to stop his world from spinning and twisting, but the more desperate he becomes, the more life beats and berates him. You might see why, at this point, calling this book merely Kafkaesque is not enough. City of Ash and Red is something else entirely.