‘Welcome To The Hyunam-Dong Bookshop’ Is Many Books Rolled Into One

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The author, Hwang Bo-Reum, studied Computer Science and worked as a software engineer in Seoul before leaving to become a writer. Clearly, she made the right choice.
The author, Hwang Bo-Reum, studied Computer Science and worked as a software engineer in Seoul before leaving to become a writer. Clearly, she made the right choice.

Welcome to the Hyunam-Dong Bookshop

By Hwang Bo-Reum; translated by Shanna Tan

London: Bloomsbury 2023.

My teenaged daughter is crazy about K-pop; Jung-kook and Suga adorn her wall! My students at the university can’t stop talking about K-drama! It seems Korea is really ‘in’ today; Korean culture has seldom been as visible internationally as it is today. It is perhaps in the fitness of things then, that we start our review column by focusing on a recent book from South Korea.

The book was published in Korean in 2022 and quickly became a bestseller.
The book was published in Korean in 2022 and quickly became a bestseller.

Welcome to the Hyunam-Dong Bookshop was published in Korean in 2022 and quickly became a bestseller. It is now available for readers in English, thanks to this Shanna Tan translation published by Bloomsbury.

This is many books rolled into one. First and foremost, it is a book about books. It is also about bookshops, about readers, and about the process of writing and the process of reading. It centres around a bookshop set up by Yeongju, who is an incorrigible romantic when it comes to books, who has divorced her husband recently and is currently on a quest to find herself. The book is about how the bookshop, tucked away in a residential neighbourhood where nobody would stumble across it unless she was looking specifically for it, grows and establishes itself and the philosophy of its owner.

First and foremost, it is a book about books. It is also about bookshops, about readers, and about the process of writing and the process of reading.
First and foremost, it is a book about books. It is also about bookshops, about readers, and about the process of writing and the process of reading.

Welcome to the Hyunam-Dong Bookshop is also about the people who work for Yeongju—Minjun, the barista, who experiments with new blends of coffee for the customers, for instance—and their relationships with Yeongju. And finally, it is also about the people who come to visit Yeongju’s bookshop. The reader who rushes in to squeeze a few minutes’ read before heading for work, the reader who comes not so much to read as to mediate and crochet, the reader who is too shy to meet Yeongju’s eye when she starts discussing books with him, the reader who makes a library of the bookshop, always reading, but never buying a book. And it is also about readers who do not want to read—the disturbed boy, Mincheol, who is prodded by his mother to spend time at the bookshop—and about how the bookshop emerges as a safe shelter for him, as for many others.

Each visitor is a story by himself or herself—each has a story to share. And Yeongju is full of curiosity about these stories. In spite of her curiosity, she maintains a studied distance with them initially. As time passes though, the visitors warm up to Yeongju, and the conversations start flowing as many a story opens up in front of Yeongju.

These conversations are no trivial matter; they open up larger insights on society, love, happiness and the very meaning of existence. Yet this is where Hwang Bo-Reum’s success lies—the book is philosophical without sounding preachy or pedantic. It coaxes the reader to think about profound questions without losing the thread of the narrative.

The conversations in the book open up larger insights on society, love, happiness and the very meaning of existence. Art above: Thirty-leaf Album of Genre Paintings by Sin Yun-bok.
The conversations in the book open up larger insights on society, love, happiness and the very meaning of existence. Art above: Thirty-leaf Album of Genre Paintings by Sin Yun-bok.

This novel is also about a collage of human emotions—guilt, remorse, anxiety and personal trauma. Characters like Yeongju, Minjun and Chang-in, Yeongju’s former husband, are essentially alone. It is also a tale of romance as Yeongju finally manages to leave behind her feelings of guilt and depression to let Seungwoo, a writer, into her life. The development of this relationship is one of the most sensitively narrated sections of the novel.

Yeongju is an independent thinker, who runs an independent bookshop, and her unconventional wisdom and unique perspective on life come out clearly in her attitude to books. Even if a book won an award and there was likely to be a demand for it, she would not make it too visible if she did not like it herself. She believes that “there was a rightful position for each book, and it was her responsibility to find it…all books in her shop were equal in her eyes. She wanted to give them all a fair opportunity to be seen and sold.”

As the narrative moves into the past to explore then personal traumas of characters like Yeongju, Minjun and Seungwoo, it engages with the question of what constitutes happiness. The novel ends up critiquing the way modern society valourises the culture of work, pushing us all to work harder and harder, making optimum use of time; it pleads strongly for a judicious work-life balance. The novel is romantic to the core, advocating a return to simplicity and a choosing of whatever path makes one happy even if it means taking the road less travelled. There are sections that remind one of Paulo Coelho. The book is also remarkable for the way it fuses the narrative with narratives posted on the internet by the characters. Thus, the Instagram posts shared by Yeongju become part and parcel of the body of the text. Welcome to the Hyunam-Dong Bookshop is also important as it opens up to the international reader the temper and belief system of contemporary Korean society.

The book is also remarkable for the way it fuses the narrative with narratives posted on the internet by the characters. Art above by Hyocheon Jeong.
The book is also remarkable for the way it fuses the narrative with narratives posted on the internet by the characters. Art above by Hyocheon Jeong.

Hwang Bo-Reum studied Computer Science and worked as a software engineer in Seoul before leaving to become a writer. Clearly, she made the right choice. We can look forward to more exciting stuff from her in the future.

All images: Google

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