Book Review

Trial and Error

Who are we allowed to love? Who should we worship? How do we know who to trust? For the female protagonists in Pak Kyongni’s stories, trying to survive in a patriarchal society ruined by war, the answers can only be found through trial and error while losing much of themselves along the way.

Pak Kyongni and the Toji Cultural Center

I hadn’t read anything by Pak Kyongni (1926-2008) when I arrived at the Toji Cultural Centre in Wonju, South Korea for an artist residency in August 2023. She was the center’s founder, had named it after her twenty-one-volume epic novel, and I was keen to discover her work. But I was in Vietnam when I received the invitation to attend the residency, a place where print books cannot easily be obtained, and most of her writing wasn’t available in digital format. I had hoped to find a translation of Toji (The Land) in the center’s library in Wonju.

Pak Kyongni is one of Korea’s most known and respected authors. Her work appears in numerous anthologies and textbooks and is still being adapted for the screen. When I expressed my desire to read Pak’s fiction, the center’s director (her grandson) handed me a paperback of a recently published collection of short stories, The Age of Doubt. Pak wrote these stories before her epic novel, in the years directly following the Korean War and into the first decades of martial law. They reflect her personal experiences with loss and the difficulties of building a life as a widowed, defiant mother in a devastated land.


In her aptly titled debut story, “Calculations,” first published in 1955, we follow the self-conscious Hwe-in on her way to Seoul Station. She pays close attention to how people look at her while imagining their thoughts and feels awkward about not knowing where to let her eyes rest. When men do her small favors, she nervously calculates what she might be expected to repay. She’d like to resist their goodwill and not rack up a debt, yet doesn’t want to be seen as “mean, the sort of person who would heartlessly turn down an act of kindness.”

The inner calculations continue in a dialogue with a close friend who accuses Hwe-in of sacrificing the prospect of a good marriage for idealistic concepts of love. She is to forgive her ex-fiancé for his hurtful comments, but Hwe-in cannot: There’s nothing to be gained by marrying a lying selfish man.

The ending is an unexpected cliffhanger, as though Pak’s story is a chapter in a longer work begging us to read on. Without a neat resolution, we must calculate like Hwe-in what might happen in the end.

The Age of Darkness

“The Age of Darkness” is about Soonyoung, who hopelessly fights the corrupt and incompetent personnel in a medical clinic. When her son gashes his head during a mountain hike, he needs urgent surgery. But there is no blood. There’s also no diagnosis, no plan, and yet the doctors proceed to take the boy into the operation room.

Soonyoung intervenes in vain, flees the hospital, and regrets her cowardice. “She is a mother who ran away because she was afraid of watching her son die.”

On almost every page, Pak makes the environment work for her story. Be it a desolate room or an auspicious sky, they tell part of the tale. When Soonyoung returns to the clinic in the morning, Pak writes, “The hellish red bricks of the hospital building glisten with the blue porcelain light of the morning.”

A postwar hospital is a not a place where lives are saved.

The Age of Doubt

Soonyoung’s loss carries us into the next story, “The Age of Doubt,” where we meet Jinyoung, who mourns the death of her small son, Munsu. In search of comfort, she lets herself be talked into going to the Catholic Church with the manager of her gye (a money-lending circle). But she’s not at home among the parishioners and finds the collection pouch suspicious.

Under the influence of her mother, Jinyoung goes to the Buddhist temple to leave her son’s nameplate and portrait, hoping the monks will say some prayers for the child. But the monks refuse her financial offering, saying it’s insufficient. Jinyoung leaves in defeat and reflects: “It feels like she has left Munsu behind all by himself in a stranger’s home without enough money for his board.”

At home, her defeat widens into existential angst, the doubt of the story’s title: “Like a whore, I bowed my head at two different places of worship.”

Jinyoung, ill with tuberculosis and the news that she’ll never receive money back from her gye is overwhelmed by the absurdity of a life in which even religions have become materialistic. After dreaming of her son, she resolutely returns to the temple to take back his photograph and memorial plate.

The story might have ended there, but in one last twist, Jinyoung burns her son’s portrait. Not out of coldheartedness, even though the clear winter sky might suggest that, but because she has so much life left in her.

Willpower, Order, and Fate

Most stories in The Age of Doubt are populated by proud unmarried characters who question their role as women under patriarchal rule, the possibility of romance, and the damaging artificiality of social customs. With their willpower, they forge a path away from the Confucian order and their prescribed fate, even if they don’t know yet where this path will lead.

In the collection’s longest story, “The Era of Fantasy,” pure love clashes with the forbidden when the teenage protagonist pursues an intense and erotically charged friendship with a Japanese girl at school during a time when anti-Japanese sentiments are still strong. In “The Sickness No Medicine Can Fix,” the focal point is the illicit love between a shaman’s daughter and a married man.

Terrifyingly Timely

Pak’s genius lies in how she layers her characters to be morally scrupulous and rebellious, wholly devoted and divided. Their complexity equals that of the circumstances they navigate. Nothing is as it seems: “Like a subject in a surrealist painting, the tall nun walks silently towards her, stepping on her own shadow.”

The seven stories in The Age of Doubt strikingly reveal the inner lives of women who struggle as much with the scarcities and cruelties of Korea’s postwar era as with society’s restraints on whom they are allowed to love. In our current world, where many are still punished for whom they love, where breaking taboos can lead to injustice, where women are told to accept men’s transgressions as inescapable, The Age of Doubt reads terrifyingly timely.

About the Reviewer

Claire Polders grew up in the Netherlands and now roams the world. She’s the author of four novels in Dutch and co-author of one novel for younger readers in English, A Whale in Paris (Simon & Schuster). She’s working on her first book-length memoir, a new novel, and a short prose collection. Please sign up for her (free) newsletter, Wander, Wonder, Write, to follow her on her journey.