Tuesday, January 12, 2016

G676 Book Review of The Private Life of Plants by Lee Seung-U

Name of Book: Singmuldeurui sasaenghwal/ The Private Life of Plants

Author: Lee Seung-U (Inrae You Vinciguerra and Louis Vinciguerra translated the novel)

ISBN: 078-1-62897-116-3

Publisher: Dalkey Archive

Type of book: 1990s? injury, sins, atonement, relationships, star crossed lovers, love triangle, forbidden love, doomed tree myths, photography, mistakes, Korea, songs, symbols, secrets

Year it was published: 2003 (2015 translated)


The Private Life of Plants is about the ways in which desire can both worsen and mitigate our flaws. We meet amputee sons whose mothers cart them from brothel to brothel; we meet brothers who love their brother’s lovers, and whose lovers in turn are stolen away by the husbands of their sisters. Sexuality in all its ugliness and wonder is put under the microscope by Lee Seung-U, who reminds us that love may come in various forms, but that it is, nonetheless, a force that unifies us all … whether we like it or not.


The main characters include Ki-hyeon, a younger son who is seen as inferior especially when being compared to his older brother Woo-hyeon. Ki-hyeon tries to atone for his mistakes and sins by helping his family with his brother's care and he also works as some sort of investigator. He also is in love with his brother's ex-girlfriend. Woo-hyeon is Ki-hyeon's older brother and he is seen as better than Ki-hyeon. Woo-hyeon is obsessed with myths of trees and taking pictures on his camera, at least a long time prior to him losing his legs. There is also Soon-mee, Woo-hyeon's and Ki-hyeon's love who also wants to do the right thing for Woo-hyeon and who seems to never have stopped loving him. Mother is also an important character because of the secrets she has that she eventually is forced to reveal. Due to plant reference, I thought the father was also an important character, but besides some revelations he makes at the end, he seems to not be as important as Woo-hyeon, Soon-mee, and the mother.


There is comparsion to tree myths and the tragedies along with events that happened to his family, but not sure what connection or comparison the author was attempting to do.


The story is written in first person narrative from Ki-hyeon's point of view. While Ki-hyeon does talk a bit about himself and his emotions and feelings, a lot of times he focuses on his family members, in particular on his older brother Woo-hyeon and on his mother, along with his brother's ex-girlfriend Soon-mee, and rarely on his father. While he is the main character, the events that happen occur more around his family rather than himself, which is definitely unique and something I hadn't seen in literature. In other words, he is passive instead of active and is there as a reporter rather than an active participant. The story does go from beginning to the end, with the characters' histories and relationships interpersed throughout.

Author Information:
(From the back of the book)

Lee Seung-U is a professor of Korean literature at Chosun University. His first novel, a Portrait of Erysichton, received the New Writers Award from Korean Literature Monthly. His novel The Reverse Side of Life was a finalist for the Prix Femina and is available in English.

Inrae You Vinciguerra has, along with her husband, Louis Vinciguerra, translated four Korean novels into English.


I have to say that this is perhaps the most unusual story I've read up to date. I've read a lot of stories, and while I enjoyed them a lot, there was something a bit familiar and predictable about them. This one, however, is not predictable and it will make one ponder the choices that the author has made and why he has made them in the first place. For one thing, what's so unusual about it is that in the stories about love and that deals with forbidden couple, those stories focus on the couple in question, while this one focuses on someone who is less or more an outsider and could never understand why he is one. The beginning is also extremely unusual and something that I had not seen in stories before. (A mother carting off her maimed son to a brothel in hopes of getting him a woman, and later on that task falls to the brother.) In a way too it seems like a Korean drama, although the couple was never given a chance to voice their thoughts. The love and romance aspect begin to play their parts almost towards the end of the story, while the beginning and middle are used to establish the family and their backgrounds.

This was given to me by Dalkey Archive for an honest review

4 out of 5
(0: Stay away unless a masochist 1: Good for insomnia 2: Horrible but readable; 3: Readable and quickly forgettable, 4: Good, enjoyable 5: Buy it, keep it and never let it go.)

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