Book Review: Black Flower

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In that moment, Paul had realized that his God was without doubt a jealous God. God had shown no power whatsoever in this fight, which had begun with a shaman. Though he knew that these people suffered for all the sins committed by Korea, Japan, and Mexico, God was as jealous as a sulky little girl. Father Paul closed his eyes. No one would ever call him Paul. He was no longer Father Paul. He was Mr. Bak, Bak Gwangsu.

Black Flower, by Young-Ha Kim

When I was a young girl, I remember being engrossed by historical fiction. I devoured the Royal Diaries series, mostly concentrating on women of European royal families: Elizabeth I, Marie Antoinette, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and so on. Despite being actively interested in historical fiction, my forays into learning about the history of my own place of origin, Korea, weren’t too numerous. I read a few books (all in English), mostly covering aspects of Korean history with which I was already familiar from various TV shows and movies.

That’s why Black Flower caught my eye. It tells a story I was previously unfamiliar with: that of a group of Koreans who immigrated to the Yucatan peninsula with high expectations, only to be greeted by a future as indentured servants. The premise interested me – it added something more to a narrative I was all too familiar with, as well as promising to teach me about a new aspect of my country’s history.

Well…I guess I did learn something new. However, I wasn’t enthusiastic about this book, and had to struggle to finish it. While I love historical fiction, I personally tend to place the emphasis on the fiction. A reader of effective, engaging historical fiction should be able to relate effortlessly with the historical content and feel inspired to do their own research. I read this book while also watching The Crown on Netflix, and I could immediately see the differences in my experiences. While watching The Crown, I often paused the show so I could google Churchill, Queen Elizabeth, and so on. I didn’t feel the same while I read Black Flower, which struggles to reconcile its history with its fiction.

Black Flower is narrated from the viewpoints of several characters, mostly the Korean immigrants, and later some Mexican officials as the tale goes on. There are many characters, and it became difficult to keep track of them all, even as someone who is familiar with Korean naming conventions. Due to the number of characters, none of them were fleshed out properly, and I often identified them only by their basic distinguishing characteristics: the orphan, the Catholic priest, the Japanese cook, and so on. I sympathized somewhat with their sufferings, but only on a surface level: I recognized that things were difficult for them, but I did not relate to them. The characters all appear to have the same personality and manner of thinking, and I couldn’t think of them as anything else but plot devices.

However, the book is also not effective at conveying the historical events of its story. I’ve most enjoyed historical fiction where I felt immersed, where characters gradually learn about the events as they happen. In Black Flower, it often seems like the author did a significant amount of research on his topic and didn’t know where to fit it in all, since no character would have had access to the information. The information is then awkwardly dumped in huge paragraphs reminiscent of middle school social studies textbooks. I found myself skimming these paragraphs. I love history, but once again, the author failed to be engaging. I think I would have enjoyed this book if it had focused more on its fictional aspect (perhaps by concentrating on a few central characters and expanding their relationships) or its historical aspect (by providing an entirely non-fictional account). Instead, the story was neither here nor there.

YES OR NO?: NO. This book was a bore, despite its fascinating historical source. Also, I’m not sure if it’s just the translation, but the prose was awkward, stilted, and a prime example of telling, not showing. I’m interested in reading more works by the author, but maybe not right away…

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