Friday, May 10, 2024

The Owl Cries, by Hye-Young Pyun

Arcade Publishing, 2023
originally published 2012 as Seojjok supeuro gatda
translated by Sora Kim-Russell
299 pp

(read in April)

I first came across the author when I read her novel The Hole a few years ago and I've been buying her books ever since.  That novel was absolutely chilling, not only in the telling but also in its implications once that last page had been turned.  Her latest novel, published last year is The Owl Cries, which like The Hole, involves a master of manipulation.  

It's the "off-season" for hiking in the forest where In-su Park is the current ranger, meaning that the forest is closed and no one is allowed in.   Used to turning people away, he is about to do the same to a stranger who arrives in a "nice jacket, with a dress shirt and tie," definitely "not an outfit for hiking in the woods." His boss had warned him that "radical environmentalists or ecologists" liked to show up at times, "to deliver canned sermons to the rangers."  But this man is not a hiker, nor does he fall into the environmentalist/ecologist category -- he is Ha-in Lee,  there to look for his older brother, Gyeong-in who had last spoken to him some six months earlier in a mysterious call in which Gyeong-in was sobbing instead of talking.   Their mother had heard from the brother as well, who could only say that "the owl was crying and the trees were attacking."  He is at the ranger station as a starting point,  because Gyeong-in had last been known to have worked there, prior to In-su taking the job.   Although Ha-in actually hates his abusive brother, their mother was "worried" and he felt it his "duty" to find him.   Questioning In-su Park, however, gets Ha-in nowhere, since In-su had only been in this job a short time and he knows nothing.   Ha-in makes his way to the small company town near the forest but no one there seems to know anything either, leaving him to question whether or not Gyeong-in had actually been there in the first place.    As the dustjacket notes, "when an accident and a death derail the investigation,"  the current forest ranger makes a discovery that helps him to decide that he really wants to know what happened to his predecessor, and sadly, he gets much more than he bargained for in the process.

Ha-in's search for his brother is what launches this story, which ultimately picks up the voices of the various people of this small village, each of whom for his or her own reasons have never left despite the severe bottoming out of  the economy there.  Very slowly, the truth of things begins to emerge as the reader begins to wonder what the hell is keeping all of these people stuck in this place, and what actually happened to Gyeong-in.  

I liked this book, didn't love it. What I did enjoy very much is the author's beautiful descriptions of the landscape and her portrayal of the monstrous (albeit very human, not supernatural) presence who looms over this story,  extremely skilled in the art of manipulation and the exercising of power,  preying upon others for his own purposes.  I love when authors spend time on examining psychologies and she is so very good at that here.   On the other hand, The Owl Cries didn't get tiptop reviews on goodreads or at any of the usual places, and I can sort of understand why. For one thing, whoever was in charge of the dustjacket blurb overdid it with the comparisons to "Stephen King, David Lynch, and the nightmare dystopias of Franz Kafka."  I know from reading about the author that King and Kafka are two authors whose work has been an influence on her own, but really, what is written here is overhyping the novel's content, kind of setting up false expectations.  (I keep swearing to myself that I will stop reading these  blurbs, but I do it anyway, and in some instances it is to my own detriment as a reader.)  And while I normally don't mind bleak, this book has absolutely no breaks in the darkness, and it is more than a bit on the murky side heading into the reveals so that even though answers came, for some reason the experience was less than fulfilling.  I know it's unfair to compare books, but The Hole was so bloody good that I supposed I expected more of the same here, and it was a bit of a disappointment when The Owl Cries just didn't measure up. I feel bad about saying that, but, well, there it is.  It actually killed me not to love this novel, but I can't help it. 

That's not to say someone else may not enjoy it; I'm a bit on the demanding side as a reader.  I'll try again with her Law of Lines which I haven't yet read, although it will be a while.

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