Tales of ancestral trauma, or, a review-ish thing of Sumi Hahn’s story of Korean rebellion and mythology

According to the Ancient Greeks, five rivers flow through the land of the dead, and the most famous of these is Lethe, whose waters, when drunk, cause forgetfulness.

The same cannot be said for the waters that flow through the afterlife of Sumi Hahn’s sad tale, The Mermaid from Jeju, named for Jeju, the South Korean island where it’s set. The imagery of the sea returns like the tide again and again: the idea of the titular ‘mermaid’ is based on the haenyeo, Korean female divers who earned their own income and supported their families by harvesting abalone and seaweed from the waves. In the ocean’s deeper waters, death is merely one of many currents. The women leave offerings at an underwater shrine, said to be for the sea god, but the outcome of doing so is never guaranteed. Near the story’s end, a character finds herself “outside the world”, in the afterlife. She walks a path up a familiar mountain. Her hair grows and tangles with the branches. When she bends to drink from a stream, she remembers “who she was,” and the waters restore her girlhood.

By this point, the story has faded quietly and sweetly into a triumph that perhaps only myths allow. Much like Korea, cut in half by the 38th parallel, this novel feels like it has two distinct halves. In the first, a young Korean woman and man fall in love against the backdrop of the Jeju Uprising, a rebellion that was brutally and violently repressed by Korea’s military dictators. As violence unfolds around them and whole villages are burned or put to the sword, the couple’s families prepare a wedding feast. You ache for the lovers in advance, suspecting already that this story will not allow them to eat it. Eventually, the woman flees to mainland Korea, where she lives “only to ache.” From there, she goes even further, to the United States, where she eschews the elemental gods of her Korean upbringing in favor of a strict communal Christianity and regular English lessons. She has two daughters who don’t understand the past, for whose sake she suppresses the annual pain she feels when snowflakes fall and remind her of her flight. In the midst of confrontations with these daughters, she reminds her husband “the fault wasn’t their daughter, but the language she spoke, which lacked modesty and manners.” Unable to describe to them her life as a haenyeo, or the gentle feeling of waves like “caresses from the god of the sea,” she tells them instead that she was once a mermaid.

The second half of the novel belongs to the ghosts born in the first half. The (now widowed) husband makes his way back to Jeju. The unpaved roads and small villages are gone, replaced by roads and resorts. Jeju, a site of so much weeping that the waters could have turned to solid salt, is now a honeymoon destination. Such is progress. But the husband can’t quite relax into the honeymoon he clearly never had. He is plagued by the voices of the past — the people he and his wife left behind when fleeing the destruction of their homes. In order to calm his ghosts, he seeks out a shaman, who performs a ritual that lifts him into the realm of fantasy. “The work of healing…must start with forgiveness first,” one of his friends tells him. Many of the people in this half of the novel are in search of peace, but first they must pass through forgiveness. Under the shaman’s gentle but insistent pressure, ghosts rise from the resting places to which they were banished by war, graves often unmarked and unremembered, and dance towards freedom and joy. The gods of mountain and sea are awakened and honored, if only briefly.

It’s a devastating tale, not least because it so honestly shows the deep trauma left by an incident that has been almost erased from history: for fifty years, it was apparently a crime to even mention the Jeju Uprising in Korea. From 1948–1950, as many as 100,000 people (many of them innocent citizens) may have been murdered by police and other authorized military forces who raped, executed and torched entire villages as part of an attempt to wipe out an ostensible communist rebellion. This incident happened partly under the so-called supervision of the United States.

But this novel largely eschews grand political statements in favor of examining personal outcomes.

“Truth is, boys, there are no good guys in war,” says one of the rebels to two disillusioned Nationalist troops who have been shipped to Jeju. This point arrives early in the novel’s chronology but halfway through its body, its bleak knowledge dividing the story’s halves. While the rebel’s statement may be philosophically true, and it explains the character’s clear-eyed resistance, it also lets the government off the hook. (South Korea’s president would eventually apologize for the murders of Jeju civilians —but in 2006).

Bolstered by this dubious non-pep-talk, the troops find their way to their own quiet rebellion. This story illustrates the gap between survival and success, between life and afterlife. It demonstrates, also, why we cleave to the gods of our ancestors even when they appear to fail us. Denied the fruits of her wedding feast in life, the main character tastes the fruit of the afterlife, and remembers “the lives she lived before and the lives that were yet to come.” For all people, but especially for people scarred by war, death is another form of continuity.

Thanks to Crooked Lane Books and NetGalley for providing a free ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.