The Ancient Garden A Love Story by Hwang Sok-Yong

Oh Hyun Woo, a political activist, has served nearly twenty years of a life sentence, but when the Korean government relaxes its stance on such dissidents, he finds himself up for release. While he was growing old on the inside, though, things on the outside have changed, and he is soon adrift in a world full of noise and activity, multi-storey apartment blocks and mobile phones. As he struggles to adjust to the present, and to consider his future, Mr Oh is also forced to examine the past: family members he's lost, one way or another; friends he's no longer in touch with; comrades who have died or moved on - and the loss of the love of his life: it may have been two decades since they were together, but some relationships leave their mark no matter what.(

Travelling and books seems to go hand in hand when it comes to me.  There I was spending a long weekend in Singapore and what do I do?  Stop at every bookstore and music store I could find for my ever expanding and I don't think it's every going to stop, book and music collection.  (The shoe shopping deserves a blog of it's own by the way.)

So there I was, in one of those said bookstores browsing thru shelves and shelves of those entities that break my budget and cram every nook and cranny of my home with their presence.  I was  sitting down as well since I was on my feet for like several hours by then.  The price ranged was enough to stop me impulse buying which was good until I chanced upon this paper bound and fairly thick book in the Asian authors section.  The title again was what piqued my interest.  The novel was The Ancient Garden" by Hwang Sok Yong translated by Jay Oh.  The story synopsis at the back stated that it was a love story that spanned nearly 20 years (it was stated in more poetic prose than that by the way) but for some reason I didn't want to put it down.  The price tag was what stopped me from buying it on the spot.  But I couldn't seem to forget that one book.   So when I got back home I decided to stop at a local bookstore.  I wasn't really hopeful that they carried this one particular novel since it was published a long time ago and well it  seemed to cater to a specific audience.  I looked thru shelves and shelves of books but could not find it so finally asked the clerk for help.  She asked for the title and confirmed, to my surprise, that they carried it and viola handed me a copy.  I was never so happy to see a book in my life (well okay in the last month or so.)

The Ancient Garden is a love story but not like your conventional love story. The editorial synopsis at the back of the book seems simple enough but once you start reading the first few pages you then realize it is something more than that.  Despite being translated from Korean to English, there seemed to be no lack in the luster of the words nor the story.  It's set in South Korea in the early eighties and spans nearly 20 years of both the protaganists lives.  It does incorporate  the political turmoil of Korea during that time but was not the main focus of the story.  Instead it enhanced what both characters were going through during the time they spent together and apart.  I don't feel adequate enough to discuss the intricacies of this wonderful piece of literature but I am confident enough to recommend this novel especially if you like stories that dwell on personal journeys.

A little tip though, it would greatly enhance your appreciation of the background of the story if you read the "About the Author" pages first.  Another thing, there was an initial bit of confusion for me when I started reading the book.  There was lot of time jumps/flashback between past and present and shifting from a "he said" "she said" perspective.  So it gave me a headache at first.  But I attribute this more to the fact that it was the first time I was reading  a literary piece from this particular author hence wasn't familiar with his style of writing.  Once I got the hang of it though it was smooth sailing from there on.   Hwang Sok Yong is a prolific multiawarded novelist in both his native Korea and the world.  This particular novel has in fact been turned into movie.

Title: The Ancient Garden ( initially titled Old Garden)
Author: Hwang Sok-Yong
Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Translated to English
First Published:  January 1, 2000 (This edition 2010)
Publisher: Picador (Paperback edition)
Rating: ♨♨♨♨ (The story is unique, heartbreaking and spans two decades, the writing style is nuanced.    The pace seems slow but definitely needed for story development.  Readers who like their stories with a some historical and cultural flavor as well as poetic prose should definitely try this book)