THE PLOT: ‘Love in the Big City’ by Sang Young Park (translated by Anton Hur) is a literary coming-of-age novel about a gay Korean man in Seoul. Young spends his student days getting drunk with his female best friend Jaehee and hopping through the beds of his Tinder matches. But when Jaehee settles down, Young is forced to grow up, get a job and care for his sick mother. Frustrated and stifled, Young finds solace in a series of relationships. But after a devastating love-affair with an older, manipulative man, will Young be able to open himself up to love again?
RATING: As a woman in a heterosexual relationship who has never been to Korea (or anywhere in East Asia), I need to start by acknowledging my limitations as a reviewer. There are probably lots of subtle things that I didn’t understand about this book. But, for what it’s worth, I really enjoyed this novel and would give it four stars. I felt it was a very intimate portrayal of a gay man seeking to become comfortable with his sexuality in a society where he is forced to repress himself. The narrative isn’t linear and it’s not a comfortable read for someone used to Western structures, but if you open your mind to it, this book is extremely moving.
GOOD BITS: It took fifty pages but once I settled into the book, I found Young to be a very compelling character. I related to his 20-something frustration about the expectations for his life vs. the reality, and the difficulties he had expressing himself. The hyper-realism of this contemporary novel may mean that some scenes appear to be random and tangential, but I found this truly immersed me in the characters’ world and I saw Young as a real person. In turn, this meant his struggles with his mental and physical health were very realistic and sympathetic.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: I think the UK cover and blurb do this book a disservice. The cover image utilizes the motif of froze cigarettes and blueberries, which are only small part of the book and the cover doesn’t evoke the title, hook or premise of the story. Similarly, the blurb focuses on Young’s friend Jaehee, who plays a relatively small role in the book. If you apply a traditional structure to the novel then Jaehee is just the catalyst but the midpoint and climax are about Young’s mental health and romantic relationships, which could be more of a focus in the marketing.
OVERALL: I’d recommend this book to fans of ‘Memorial’ by Bryan Washington, ‘Real Life’ by Brandon Taylor and ‘A Room Called Earth’ by Madeleine Ryan. Warning – it is a literary novel that is not linear and doesn’t have quotation marks, so I know it won’t be for everyone. But I also know that many people are aiming to read more non-Western books or books in translation in 2022, so this could be one to add to your TBR.
Thank you to Tilted Axis Books for my #gifted copy in return for an honest review. It’s available to buy from Waterstones in the UK.