Welcome to the Hyunam-dong Bookshop: A Novel

  • By Hwang Bo-reum; translated by Shanna Tan
  • Bloomsbury Publishing
  • 320 pp.

A bookstore in suburban Seoul brings outsiders together.

Welcome to the Hyunam-dong Bookshop: A Novel

Where can one find sanctuary in a hostile world? According to Welcome to the Hyunam-dong Bookshop, by South Korean author Hwang Bo-reum, at an indie bookstore. Braiding fictional characters with real books, the novel explores the lives of a disparate group of misfits living outside the parameters of conventional Korean social standards.

Feeling unfulfilled in her staid marriage and flourishing career, Lee Yeongju divorces her husband, breaks off relations with her disapproving mother, and leaves her job to open the Hyunam-dong Bookshop, named after the Seoul suburb where it’s located. At first, she sits in her half-empty store crying.

Eventually, Yeongju starts to read again, a favorite childhood activity that she had to abandon in middle school in order to start the grueling journey toward the Korean model of successful adulthood. “The books welcomed her back with open arms without judging the person she’d become, and accepted her for who she was,” Hwang writes. “Like a well-nourished person who ate three good meals a day, she grew stronger.”

Soon, Yeongju puts all her energy into stocking the shelves; writing notes and blogs for books she recommends, such as The Elegance of the Hedgehog and the Korean book The Guard of Light; making inviting posts on Instagram; organizing bookish events; and creating a safe space for others who dare to live against the grain.

The novel revolves around Yeongju’s interactions with her quirky community. There’s Minjun, the bookshop’s barista, who did everything right, studying hard to get into an elite university and dedicating himself to securing a corporate job, only to find his goal forever beyond his grasp. Besides Yeongju, his closest relationship is with Jimi, the owner of a coffee-bean distributor, who’s in a miserable marriage.

Jungsuh, a temp never hired permanently at her company no matter how hard she worked, leaves her job and comes to the bookshop not to read but to crochet and meditate. Mincheol, a high school student who doesn’t see the point of life (Yeongju recommends he read The Catcher in the Rye), hangs out at the store instead of going to cram school. His mother, who’s struggling to raise her son as a single woman, finds solace there as well.

The plot mostly unfolds through probing conversations among the characters as they dissect how they’ve failed in the “rat race” and how they can nevertheless achieve fulfillment and purpose. Guidance is offered by those who’ve found the courage to live as they wish and not as society demands, including Seungwoo and Sungchul, who don’t wait for the world to give them permission to call themselves writers but claim the title for themselves.

Via her thoughts on literature, Yeongju gives voice to the author’s message about the redemptive power of reading. Yeongju’s definition of a good book could be a description of Welcome to the Hyunam-dong Bookshop itself:

“[L]iterary novels with social commentary…When authors delve deep into their understanding of life to touch the hearts of readers, helping them to navigate life, isn’t that what a good book should be?”

Furthering the metanarrative, Hwang, who published a book of essays called I Read Every Day, has Yeongju interview a character named Lee Areum, author of Every Day I Read, who says, “Reading makes you deviate further from the textbook definition of success because books don’t make us go ahead or above anyone else; it guides us to stand alongside others.”

Though the story probes deeply into the innermost lives of the characters, they never rise above caricature. Dialogue, which comprises much of the text, is presented in standalone paragraphs, sometimes causing confusion as to who’s talking. The translation by Shanna Tan is overly faithful, with inert prose that exudes sincerity and little else.

Of course, what makes a good book is subjective. I prefer a less didactic, more nuanced approach to fiction and find the overarching moral of the story — reading makes us more empathetic and brings the world together — too simplistic. Books can just as easily maim and warp a mind: Mark David Chapman claimed The Catcher in the Rye as inspiration for murdering John Lennon. But Welcome to the Hyunam-dong Bookshop was a bestseller in South Korea, and some readers may find its optimistic message of “A day well spent is a life well lived” just the refuge they need in turbulent times.

Alice Stephens is grateful for her local independently owned bookshop, Loyalty Bookstore.

Believe in what we do? Support the nonprofit Independent!
comments powered by Disqus