Miss Kim Knows by Cho Nam-Joo

Reviewed by Clare Brook

Miss Kim Knows, a collection of eight short stories by Cho Nam-Joo, could be likened to a literary jig-saw.  Each story offers a different perspective of female lived experience in South Korea, so in its entirety readers are given an impression of South Korean cultural life, at least for one gender.  The stories sweep over a wide range of ages, teenagers to the very old, a wide range of professions, administrators to teachers, but all reveal a gender struggle against discrimination of one kind or another.  Cho Nam-Joo is a former television scriptwriter.  Here she draws partly on her own experience as a woman who resigned from her job to assume domestic duties after the birth of her child.

The first in the collection ‘Under the Plum Tree’ depicts two elderly sisters, one with dementia, Geumju, meaning ‘gold bead’, and the other witnessing her sister’s demise.   Despite severe memory loss, Geumju always calls her sister by her preferred name, Dongju, ‘brass bead’.  She was given the name Mallyeo, meaning ‘last girl’.  This was her parents’ attempt to change their luck after having three daughters; they only wanted sons.  Their disappointment was marked on their third daughter for life.  This story ends with the death of Geumju and lovely descriptions of plum tree buds, blossoms, snow, and then flowers, a circle of seasonal weather.  A fitting end.

In ‘Grown-up Girl’, Choo moves from the elderly perspective to a teenage girl and how she and her friends take revenge on the awful treatment they must endure from the boys.  ‘Miss Kim Knows’ tells of a highly competent women working in an office where she seems to oil the wheels of efficiency in every area, but only for minimum wage.  Miss Kim was dismissed; it seems for being too good at her job, after which the office experiences odd and destructive events.  Justice is served.  As it is in ‘Dear Hyunnam Oppa’, although in this case it comes in the form of a letter written by a young girl breaking up with her long-term boyfriend.  She has arrived at the conclusion that she is in a controlling dysfunctional relationship and sets out in this letter to detail every fact that has led her to this conclusion.  A most timely story.

‘Night of Aurora’ full of wonderful descriptions as a middle-aged lady takes the trip of a lifetime to see the Aurora.  The story explores the dynamics of mother, daughter and husband’s expectations and demands, and the struggle of women to maintain a profession when married with children.

The above is a sample of the culturally significant stories written so well by Cho-Nam-Joo.

Miss Kim Knows

by Cho Nam-Joo


Simon & Schuster


ISBN: 978 139852 291 6

$32.99; 216pp

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