REVIEW: Untold Night and Day by Bae Suah

In brief: As of tonight, Ayami is out of a job. The theatre where she works has closed and she and her former boss wander Seoul at night. The next day, she must act as a tour guide to a visiting author for her German teacher. It’s hot and reality is melting into the footpath…

The good: Very well written, with a lot of recurring themes and symbolism.

The not-so-good: Sometimes I just wanted more plot.

Why I chose it: Sounded like a quirky read.

Year: 2020 (2013 in Korean)

Translator: Deborah Smith

Pages: 156

Publisher: Jonathan Cape (Penguin)

Setting: Seoul, South Korea

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Untold Night and Day is an unusual novel with a lot to unpack. It’s very clever, full of symbolism with themes of identity and how we are heard through different lenses. It’s not a book that you read with 10% of your brain, but one that takes concentration to get the most out of this cleverly constructed novel. Towards the end, I found myself wishing for more linear development and simplicity, yet appreciating the skill involved in this fractured, surreal story of summer in Seoul.

Ayami is an actress and the central character in Untold Night and Day. She works at a theatre for the blind, but this is the last day for the theatre. Jobless, she and her former boss close the theatre and wander the hot, dark streets of Seoul looking for their friend. She’s gone to the hospital, but has asked Ayami to go to the airport early the next morning to meet an author friend. By day, Ayami shows him around while he complains and the story flows into fever dream territory. What is real, what is not and what is only perceived by some becomes a blur in the heat and fatigue of the day.

The story is more linear to begin, focusing on Ayami (such as her legs and scars) with exploration of those around her and her childhood. These people and motifs recur through the novel with increasing frequency as the novel progresses, asking the reader to question how these connect with each other and what do they mean? Deborah Smith’s skills as a translator shine here, with the motifs and images increasing in familiarity as the fever pitch as to what is real and what is imagined reaches its peak. (Her translator’s note explains this in depth; I’d suggest reading first if you want the heads up on what to watch for). The heat and humidity increase as night turns into day, adding to the surreal quality of the novel as the day goes on. Ultimately, the reader is left to make their own decisions as to who Ayami is, what her past is and what is real. Is any of it real and does it really matter if it isn’t?

This would be a great novel to pick apart in study if you are willing to put in the effort to savour it. I must admit that I didn’t always do that, particularly at the end where the disorientation was strong. I like to ‘get’ things, and I didn’t always get this. However, Untold Night and Day is a very clever novel with amazing structure, just not for tired end of day reading.

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