BOOK REVIEW EDITOR-IN-CHIEF ELLA KELLEHER WRITTEN – Beauty is a weapon. In South Korea, widely known as the plastic surgery capital of the world, you find yourself needing to be armed to the teeth at all times. “Korea is a place where you can’t leave the house without makeup if you’re not beautiful,” which is an especially common norm for women. Imagine someone who is not beautiful, even considered “ugly” – the “the ugliest woman” that no one had ever seen. Such is the position of the narrator’s main love interest, a girl who is never given a name. Suddenly, a boy with a handsome movie star appearance approaches a girl who has never been romantically recognized. His thoughts circle endlessly: What if he’s not genuine? Even more terrifying, what if he was? In such a wild world, how could the girl ever allow her emotional defenses to falter?
Our narrator is an emotionally at-sea boy. Set in 1980s South Korea, the unnamed boy’s handsome father dumps his average-looking mother for the lucky film role of a lifetime in Seoul and, as we might expect, a prettier co-star. Disgusted with his father, the narrator distances himself from his family and takes a job at a department store as he plans to study for college entrance exams. There he befriends a colleague, an eccentric John Lennon guy named Yohan. Working alongside them is the “ugliest girl [he’d] never seen” and the first and only girl he falls in love with.
Revered South Korean author Park Min-Gyu, best known for this book, builds romantic tension slowly and poetically. Outwardly, the young girl is very wary of the advances of this handsome stranger but simmers in the background an ever-growing affection and enthusiasm. Men usually only speak to her on a dare, but with Yohan’s assurance, the quirky trio become inseparable. Each is a “monster” by South Korean standards: a college dropout, a hideous girl, and a handsome boy who dares to be seen with her.
This is not an “ugly duckling” story. Nor is it a gender-swapped retelling of “Beauty and the Beast.” Pavane for a dead princess (2014) moves at a slower pace than most romance novels, it takes time to breathe and let the reader feel the uncertainty and depth of true love. The girl’s ugliness complicates the story. The narrator does not seek to deny the fact. He does not claim that she had an “inner beauty” that blinds him to her outward appearance. In this regard, Park’s novel is incredibly valuable. The story paints an admirably realistic and honest portrayal of romance and how utterly confusing and unquantifiable it is.
Impeccably translated by Amber Hyun Jung Kim, in this new edition there are moments in Park’s prose that shine a light on the complexity of the human condition. The youngster admits that not only is she not attractive on the outside, but she also has a vicious darkness inside her: “Some people might point fingers at people with disabilities and tell me things can be much worse. . I know that there are many people who suffer… [there] were many times when I envied these people. At least the world recognizes their handicaps for handicaps. The world never accepted my darkness as a handicap, yet everyone treated me as such… [I] had no choice but to live this life. It was my destiny.
What if the pain and cruelty of a superficial society deepened something in his soul? The narrator remained a traumatized man after his father’s betrayal, and the girl was destined from birth to experience hardship. The reader wonders why the narrator likes the girl, and the answer comes in the form of a question, slowly but clearly drifting on the tides of an unlikely relationship: What if there was an invisible bond between two people, a “red string which binds two souls together? What if you could love without using eyes or logic – what if one soul just chose another?
Pavane for a dead princess is a masterclass in poetic writing and a thoroughly emotionally devastating read necessary for audiences interested in a deep cultural critique of South Korean (and, to some extent, East Asian) beauty standards. It is a story constructed for social protest. He invites the reader to see beyond the superficial “societal judgments” cemented thousands of years ago. Largely ignored by overseas audiences when it was released in 2014, Park’s novel deserves a more nuanced review, re-reading and analysis. Park Min-Gyu’s prose guts society and in doing so also leaves indelible emotional marks on the reader.
Ella Kelleher, an LMU English major, is a book review editor and editor for Asia Media International. She majored in English with a concentration in multi-ethnic literature.