Bluebeard's First Wife

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

The world of Korean writer Ha Seong-Nan is not a pretty place. In her new collection of stories, BLUEBEARD'S FIRST WIFE, bad things happen to good people, especially those who take up residence in unfamiliar places, where they are treated with suspicion and dislike by the locals.

In "Night Poaching" a young detective arrives in a rural town whose most skilled deer-hunter, Kim Jimseong, was found dead, the victim of a shotgun blast. The detective's orders were not to try and find the perpetrator, only to determine whether the cause of death was suicide, homicide, or accident. When he starts asking questions the locals reject and scorn him. He comes to realize that they fear his investigation will uncover their involvement in the illegal (but lucrative) poaching trade. It doesn't take long for them to turn on him, in sinister and violent ways.

In the titular story, "Bluebeard's First Wife," a 30-year-old pharmacist marries a ne'er-do-well grad student named Jason (Korean name, Hyogyeong), who takes her off to New Zealand to live. She does her best to adjust to that foreign clime and make a happy home, only to discover a shocking secret about Jason that poisons their relationship and results in abuse and bloodshed.

It goes like that in the other nine stories in the collection, all of which catch you up in Ha Seong-Nan's unique, steely, irresistible spell.

(; the deft translation is by Janet Hong)