Today we’re going to start our look at a really intriguing South Korean novel, Suspicious Maids, by Jingyu Park (박진규의”수상한 식모들” ). This 2005 novel is about 330 pages long with 28 chapters, and it has a rather surreal feel, at least as far as the chapter titles go. I’m hoping it lives up to that first impression. You can get a copy of it here:
It is written in first person perspective, and the main character is eighteen-year-old Kyeongho Shin. The title of this post is the title of chapter one. Kyeongho has body image problems and is a bit of a hormonal mess, something that reminds me of the edgier teen films from the 1980s in the US, but clearly there’s something more to his problems than being the average teenage boy with family issues. The opening line of chapter one is, “The mice are descending in hordes again.” (또 쥐들이 몰려온다.) Mice? He’s actually in class on an athletic field as a monitor for younger kids playing soccer. The ball hits him in the head, and he crashes to the floor. He connects the children to his visions of mice, an aversion he thinks has something to do with a repressed memory. He dreams of mice, hallucinates them jumping around to cause the ceiling to collapse.
He introduces himself in the text quite directly, citing his name and personal stats, from weight to number of cavities and lots of embarrassing details in between. He mentions his emotional problems relating to the mice. Then he wakes up on a bed in the nurse’s office with the health teacher, a thirty-something young woman who has dozed off in a rather risqué position, at his side. She wakes, and he asks if he can get up. She comes over to feel his forehead, making sure he doesn’t have a fever. Pulling out his file, she looks through it, and he tells her his name is sometimes Chihuahua. She thinks he’s not being serious. We get some background about his parents, which isn’t flattering. I think his meaning here is that they saw children as an obstacle, so there were no warm memories of his upbringing with them. The attacking mice are specifically connected to the vivid memory of the voice of an attacking woman.
The health teacher suggests he go to an obesity management program and takes out a flier for one for him to look at. It is a camp offering an exercise and dietary cure especially for high school students. He tries to get her sympathy by complaining about how hard it is to get a girlfriend, that girls judge by appearance, and she tells him that’s not necessarily true. He has a lot of complaints about sex that he wishes he could tell her.
Then he mentions the mice to his health teacher, how they are related to dreams and fainting spells, and she gets into some child psychology about trauma, coping mechanisms and family troubles. She once had taken a class on it. The suggestion so far is that his family is involved in crime somehow. While they are talking, a woman is washing the window, and Kyeongho mentions a maid, thinking that the maid took care of the mice.
Chapter 2, “Maids are Hidden in My Desk,” introduces Kyeongho’s household. Unlike the impression chapter 1 leaves with the reader, his family seems rather ordinary, if unhappy in all of the boring ways families can be. He has an older brother and a younger brother, and his older brother ran away at some point. No details are given here on that situation yet, however. We discover that his father was in the construction materials business in the 1980’s, which his mother was very proud of. They imported a lot of goods, and his mother liked to shop. So the 80’s were a period of them making a show of their lifestyle. They lived in Donam-dong, a district in Seoul:
A lot of this part is slice-of-life details showing their family life. Most of it is hard to describe as a result, and it’s quite a contrast to the wild opening chapter, but as chapter 2 progresses, some more major, identifiable problems surface. His mother and her mother-in-law Kyeongho’s grandmother didn’t have a good relationship at all, and the grandmother was ill and needed some care that his mother seemed to be responsible for. His mother had her youngest son late in life, and there’s some talk in this part of the text about a dream of the baby’s conception, an intriguing mention that I didn’t quite get the significance of, but perhaps that’s just my reading level interfering here. Kyeongho says his mother was brave for marrying his father because of the melodrama with his grandmother. He mentions later that she came to work for his grandmother very young as a maid, at age 10, and she ultimately married his father after ten years of working for his family. His father was nine years older than his mother.
Then the story gets strange. Kyeongho sees a maid. I’m not sure if he’s physically seeing her or if he’s just remembering her. She has a black veil over her face, looks typical but like any woman attending a funeral. The maid worked for their family seven years before resigning. The maid they have now is an older woman who dresses practically and smells because of the scrubbing gourd she carries around. She asks if sweets have been banned so she will know to not make donuts so much because of Kyeongho’s obesity.
Meanwhile, his grandmother is railing on his mother enough to make her pop headache medication 3 times a day. Kyeongho goes to see his father, who is absorbed in a maid simulation game on the computer. The room smells like cigarette butts, which are sitting in an ashtray beside him. Kyeongho asks if they ever had a young maid work for them. His father says they had one when he was a young child, but she left after a short time. Now the maids that come are older and not particularly pretty. I think Kyeongho considers a maid good at dealing with mice.
His father has lost his job at some point, and his family’s lifestyle is much lower than they were used to previously. This makes his mother pensive thinking about all of the luxuries she used to enjoy, and Kyeongho suggests they sell some of the books they have that no one reads anymore. He does have fond memories of her reading them to him before he learned to read himself, but when he mentions these memories, she says it wasn’t her. She didn’t read them to him. He asks if it was a maid then who read them to him when he was small. She thinks it was an old woman who read them to him and wonders why he wants to know. He brings up his theory again that they had a young maid living with them, saying that his grandmother told him. His mother is incredulous, wondering how that could be.
When he returns to his room, he thinks about his childhood. He almost wants to hold a book funeral as he puts the books into a box to get rid of them. Checking the covers as he puts them in the box, he asks his mother when she comes in if it is okay if they add the Bible to the stack. She used to enthusiastically go to church, but his father’s failure at work was too much of disgrace, it made them feel cut off from God, so they didn’t continue. She tells him it’s okay to put it in the box, too. When she leaves the room, he finds a notebook his father used to keep track of the maids.
Next time, I think we get a look at the maid simulation game, which sounds like it could be another exciting chapter as a counterpoint to this rather mundane second one.
Part one of a four part series.