Keller's 'Fox Girl': conscripts of war

April 21, 2002|By Laura Demanski | By Laura Demanski,Special to the Sun

Fox Girl, by Nora Okja Keller. Viking. 290 pages. $23.95.

In Fox Girl, Nora Okja Keller invokes a world so harsh, the most essential forms of human connection count as luxuries there. With bare survival in doubt, emotional bonds prove shockingly superfluous. That world lies near an American military installment in South Korea, soon after the Korean War. Under the conditions there -- extreme scarcity, moral corrosion and cultural schizophrenia -- love itself is hard to afford.

Narrating her own coming-of-age story in Fox Girl is Hyun Jin, a teen-ager living on the outskirts of "America Town." The birthmark covering half her face makes Hyun Jin an outcast, a status she shares with the tweggi: local kids whose homebound G.I. fathers left them and their Korean mothers behind, usually crippled by poverty and doubly disgraced by bastardy and mixed race.

The tweggi include Hyun Jin's best friend, Sookie, the daughter of a Korean prostitute and a long-forgotten G.I. The Koreans around America Town have absorbed the prejudices of a segregated U.S. military culture, so Sookie is even more of a pariah for having a black father: "When we were children, everyone in Chollak thought Sookie was ugly; this is what I loved most about her. Her ugliness -- bulbous eyed and dark skinned -- was greater than mine."

Her embattled loyalty to Sookie sustains Hyun Jin, but the closer she cleaves to her friend, the more the foundations of her modestly comfortable life crumble beneath her. By almost imperceptible stages, both girls find themselves pressed to increasingly extreme measures of self-preservation.

Some of what Hyun Jin ultimately endures as a "bar-girl" is deeply horrifying, but even at their most graphic, the novel's stark depictions of her experiences are far from sensationalizing. They complete Keller's picture of this hidden world, hellish but real. The most difficult scenes also reveal the depth and content of Hyun Jin's courage.

Fox Girl follows Keller's critically acclaimed 1997 debut, Comfort Woman, and shares many of that earlier novel's concerns. Again here, the ambivalent ties that bind mothers to daughters are explored freshly and honestly, without sentimental preconceptions. And again Keller brings to light the scraping, tenacious, unbeautiful lives of women conscripted in wartime.

Keller's two novels also have in common their remarkable writing -- searingly eloquent, rich but unostentatious, never maudlin though deeply felt. Early on, when a young Hyun Jin guiltily eats a basket of grapes that her mother has meant to sell, she describes the incident in terms that reveal something of her inner life and also of the world around her:

"Before I knew it I had devoured not only all the baby grapes, but the mother-father and ancestor grapes as well. In fact the entire village of grapes that existed in that basket had been wiped out. Shocked, I stared at the skeletons of stems and withered rejects."

Hyun Jin's childish metaphor evokes a population scarred by war; Keller's artful novel exposes a culture disrupted by it for generations.

Laura Demanski studies Victorian literature at the University of Chicago. She is completing a dissertation about representations of the London poor in the writing of Henry James, Arthur Morrison and other late-19th-century novelists. She previously worked as an editor at Simon & Schuster. Her reviews have appeared in the Chicago Tribune as well as The Sun.

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