If you were to ask a literary academic or expert unprompted which part of the world was the next big place to watch out for literary giants, they’d probably ask you to leave their office before they called security.
However, if you get past that point, they would probably say that Korea is one of the best places to look for up-and-coming hits in the literary world.
This is a corner of the world where biting social and political commentary can be at their rawest, and where strict genre conventions are simply just rules to be broken rather than hard-and-fast rules to follow.
The result is a body of work that often blends genres and writing conventions in unexpected ways, making for novels that are unlike anything else in the world that you’ve read.
No wonder many people are saying the Korean peninsula is the place to look for the literature of tomorrow.
In fact, some would argue that tomorrow’s biggest hits are happening today if this list that I’ve collected here for you now is anything to go by!
From political thrillers to self-help issues, these books cover almost anything that you could think of.
Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, By Cho Nam-Joo (Translated By Jamie Chang)
If we’re showing you a list of the best Korean novel hits, we might as well start with one of the heavy hitters that the region has produced in the last 10 years!
Fortunately, that’s a niche that Cho Nam-Joo’s novel Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is more than up to the task to fill.
So, what exactly is this book, which has already sold well over a million copies in Korea, that makes it so good?
Well, for one thing, it is writing about a subject that cuts to the core of a major political issue that has been going on for a few years now.
The subject of misogyny, both obvious and passive, has been an issue in Korea as much as it has the rest of the world, and this novel makes that very clear in the form of our titular protagonist, the young mother Kim Jiyoung, who has quit her job and abandoned her career prospect to be a stay-at-home mother, a decision that wasn’t exactly of her own volition.
As she starts to impersonate the voices of other women that she has met in her life, her concerned husband takes her to see a psychiatrist.
What follows is a retrospective of Kim’s life, and the many obstacles and difficulties that she has had to contend with, from childhood and her parent’s differing expectations of her, her sisters and brother, and well into her adult and professional life.
It’s no coincidence that author Cho Nam-Joo picked what was the most ubiquitous name for a woman of this age group.
Kim Jiyoung is a damning condemnation of the sexism and misogyny that exists in Korean society.
For me, given that many forms of Korean entertainment are becoming popular across the world, from K-Pop to Korean dramas, this is a book that holds a dark mirror up to a place that many people might idealize.
- A biting book that opens the discussion of sexism and how it is perpetuated throughout Korean society.
- This commentary extends to the extended cast of characters that are around Kim Jiyoung, and how they also perpetuate these behaviors and attitudes.
- Also tackles how these attitudes affect parental-child relationships too, in a very personal way.
- This book is tackling some seriously dense issues that have real-world consequences and impacts. It is a phenomenal read, but probably not something good for light entertainment.
The Investigation, By Jung-Myung Lee (Translated By Chi-Young Kim)
Well, that last book was about some pretty heavy stuff, so let’s look for a book that might be a little
This one is a great murder-mystery style story, set amid the Asian theater of World War 2 after a guard at a major prison facility has been brutally murdered.
… Yeah, maybe not the lightest material that I could’ve picked as a follow-up, in retrospect.
Still, believe me when I say that this is still a novel that you’re going to want to read.
Watanabe Yuichi, a prison guard with a love of reading, finds himself in charge of the investigation into one Sugiyama’s murder, a guard as much feared and hated by other prison guards as they were by the inmates, a collection of hardened criminals and political criminals against the Japanese Empire and Emperor.
So, there’s a pretty long list of suspects, to say the least!
While World War 2 is a setting and period that will likely never go out of fashion in terms of the works set during it, the Asian front is one that often gets a lot less screen time over the Pacific and European perspectives.
Jung-Myung’s work helps rebalance that a little, by taking a look at a key real-world moment in a time in Korea’s history when it had little autonomy over itself (the entire Korean peninsula being controlled by Japan at this point in history).
Plus, Jung-Myung’s writing style lends itself to a good murder mystery.
There’s plenty of tension in the prison setting, as Watanabe struggles to figure out who he can trust in his investigation
- An amazing fictionalized murder mystery that is based on real events in the real-world Fukuoka prison.
- A fascinating look at a crucial point in Korea’s recent history during a worldwide conflict.
- A thrilling murder mystery where the lines between ally and enemy are blurred.
- The focus on the murder mystery aspect does tail off a little towards the end of the book.
Blood Sisters, By Kim Yedeum (Translated By Ji Yoon Lee)
It’s another political thriller making its way onto the list.
In this particular book by Kim Yedeum, we’re taking another look at the political tensions of the 1980s.
It’s the late 1980s, and the memory of president Chun Doohwan‘s violent crackdown on student protesters is still fresh in the minds of many young college-age folks of the day.
Our protagonist, Jeong Yeoul, is a student that is just trying to get by in college (and not doing a great job at it either) and lives with a political activist of the day, Jimin, an older student, and her titular blood sister (roll credits).
However, when Jimin’s activism leads to lasting consequences for both of them, Jeong must get to the bottom of the mystery that continues to unravel around her.
An intriguing set-up for political suspense and mystery-solving, for sure!
Maybe it is just the wave of 80s-themed media we’ve been getting for the past 5 years of this time, but it’s kind of crazy just how many modern political thrillers seem to take place in this decade these days.
Is it the romantic lens of nostalgia making us fond of the decade? The last breath of old Cold War tensions heating up before it comes to a close?
Who’s to say? And, maybe more importantly for this book, who cares when it makes amazing reads like this one?
Well, you should care and think about media and books, but my point stands.
This book is a great read for those looking at what it was like to have boots and shoes on the ground in Korea during the decade.
- A political thriller and mystery story that takes place at a key point in living South Korean history.
- A discussion of sexual violence, competing, tense ideologies, and the cultural conservatism that still affects Korea today.
- An interesting dive into Korean terms and honorifics for newcomers to the language.
- Those with next-to-no familiarity with Korea at this time might take a while to understand what exactly is going on.
The Plotters, By Un-Su Kim (Translated By Sora Kim-Russell)
Thrillers seem to be a popular novel genre in Korean literature.
The last 2 entries in this list both utilized suspense and fear in a thriller-esque way, and that train shows no signs of stopping with this next entry on my list!
Assassins might be the heavy-lifters when it comes to violence in this book, but it is the plotters, the people that control the assassins, that do the real damage here.
With a city full of plotters, trying to move the big pieces of the board in their favor, it’s very easy to find yourself lost in a sea of Machiavellian political machinations.
It’s a problem that Reseng, one of the country’s best assassins, knows all too well, and has spent most of his life being raised by and working for a plotter named Old Raccoon.
But when he steps out of his direct orders on one job, Reseng will be forced to decide whether he wants to stay a pawn for the rest of his life or take control of his actions.
What draws you in is the fascinating setting that author Un-Su Kim creates for us in this book.
There’s an almost fantastical element to the setting here. I mean, assassins. In a library?
That’s kind of insane!
That fantastical element also extends to the eclectic cast of characters that populate the world of The Plotters.
From our main character with his love for beer and his cats to a crematorium owner with a gentle soul, to a cross-eyed librarian stitcher, not everyone is who they claim they are, making this mystery and thrilling set of circumstances even tougher to navigate.
It’s certainly an attention grabber for us!
- A thrilling story about assassins and agency.
- An amazing cast of characters that will all become someone’s favorite out there!
- The setting itself is full of quirky and interesting locations.
- The prose, while poetic and flowing, might make it difficult to follow the main plot from time to time.
Love In The Big City By Sang Young Park (Translated By Anton Hur)
Okay, that’s it. We’ve had our fill of thrillers for a while, so let’s take a look at a different genre for the next entry here!
Love in the Big City is the perfect romance for folks that want their romance story to be set in Korea, especially from a perspective that you may not see much of.
Young is a young college student in Korea, who spends most of his time with his best friend Jaehee, going from class to class, party to party, bedroom to bedroom.
You know, classic college stuff.
This life of simple gratification and hedonism is fun and feels good for a while. But it’s a life that can’t last forever for Young, it seems.
Even Jaehee begins to settle down, leaving young to care for his ailing mother, and trying to navigate life on his own, while perhaps finding love in the form of two men.
This book feels practically tailor-made to soothe the millennial soul.
From the details of the incredible nights out with young friends to the slow but inevitable realization that times change us all, to even the isolated, lonely feeling that many people get when living alone in a big city like Seoul.
It’s not an experience exclusive to millennials, of course, which is probably why it is finding popularity and success with so many people across the world.
But the experience seems to speak to young adults who have come of age, or who are about to come of an age where the thrill of younger living has to be tempered with thoughts of the future.
In short, it is a great romance with an LGBTQ+ main character, and feels fresh to read for pretty much anyone!
- An amazing tale of young college life moving into young adulthood, and expectations from those around you
- A gripping tale about the loneliness that many people might feel when living in a big city, where seeing the people around you for who they are can be difficult.
- A great story for LGBTQ+ representation.
- The way the story is structured lends an unreliable narrator-like feeling when reading it. An interesting choice, but one that can make following it more difficult at times.
The Hole, By Hye-Young Pyun (Translated By Sora Kim-Russell)
Now, normally, I would start talking about the sort of genre that this next book is in, to give you a better idea of what you can expect, or if it is a book to your tastes.
But this next one is a little difficult to describe, at least when it comes to pinning it into a genre.
Let’s go through the synopsis, and see if that helps narrow it down.
Our main character, Ogi, is left bedridden and disfigured after a tragic car accident that took his wife’s life.
Along with coming to terms with the death of his beloved, Ogi also has to contend with being cared for by his mother-in-law, who is not only grieving for her own daughter’s death but is a widow herself.
Ogi finds his care being neglected more and more, and that his only solace comes from his room, giving him a clear view of the garden that his wife lovingly tended to.
It’s a bittersweet, but soothing reminder. Until that is, his mother-in-law starts uprooting and taking those plants out of the garden.
What is she doing? What could she be planning? And what does it mean for Ogi himself?
… So, it’s certainly not a rom-com then.
The comparisons to Stephen King’s Misery aren’t unfounded.
The bedridden male protagonist, and a neglectful, even malicious caretaker, are all aspects that echo in this book.
The banality of cruelty and isolation are also big themes in this book.
I’d say this sits firmly in the psychological thriller/horror genre, with its insights into Korean culture and familial relations adding a very different spin to it.
So, if any of this sounds like a book that you’d be interested in, take a look for yourself!
- A gripping story about loss and isolation.
- A very focused cast of just a few characters that are richly explored.
- A great book for fans of psychological horror, and readers of Stephen King’s Misery.
- The short length of the book might leave some readers wanting more.
Diary Of A Murderer, By Young-Ha Kim (Translated By Krys Lee)
I mean, with so many true-crime podcasts out there these days, why wouldn’t a book be about the tales of these often violent and unconventional characters of society?
Diary of a Murderer by Young-Ha Kim isn’t just one story, but a short collection of four anthology stories.
While the other three are all excellent in their own right, it’s the titular story that we want to focus on for this list, as it has a compelling story to it that you can’t help but be drawn into.
Trust me, I’ve tried, and I keep coming back to this story in particular (sorry, the other 3 stories. I’ll get around to you eventually!)
The story, as the title suggests, follows the excerpts and memoirs of a former serial killer, who has long since hung up their coat and killing tools in his old age, and now suffers from Alzheimer’s.
However, our titular character is suspicious that his daughter’s new boyfriend is also a serial killer, and plans to do to her what our main character has done to countless others throughout his grizzly career.
Of course, not only is our main guy suffering from memory loss and deterioration, but he can’t exactly tell anyone about how he knows that her boyfriend is a serial killer, for… you know, obvious reasons.
It’s a gripping tale from start to finish and is also a very quick read when compared to many of the other books that you’ll find on this list.
It’s for these reasons and more that I’d encourage you to pick up this book by one of Korea’s rising literary stars!
- A gripping short story about a serial killer, and then coming to terms with their life and mortality, while on one last target.
- A gripping novella full of suspense and intrigue, from beginning to end.
- A short read that can be read and digested in a single (longish) sitting.
- The other stories, while great, don’t quite grab your attention in the same way that Diary of a Murderer does.
Almond, By Won Pyung-Sohn (Translated By Joosun Lee)
This next entry is a strange combination of both tragedy and hopefulness and exactly the sort of book that you’ll want to read when you feel like reading something that brings you hope.
Maybe not in the most obvious way, but hope nonetheless!
The main character of At Dusk is Park Minwoo, a young man who was born with Alixithymia and is unable to express fear or anger.
That doesn’t sound so bad at first until it becomes clear that Minwoo’s condition means that he struggles to make and retain friends.
It’s an issue that his mother and grandmother try to help him with, teaching him when to express the right emotions at the right time.
Minwoo has a comfortable life, for the most part.
But a tragedy at age 16 that takes the lives of his mother and grandmother leaves him alone in the world, retreating further and further into isolation.
However, a chance encounter with the troubled teen and bully Gon gives Minwoo the anchor he needs to start living again and break the walls that he had deliberately and inadvertently made for himself.
And that’s just the introduction! Wait until you read the rest of the book!
This is a heartwarming story about finding hope and life again after everything is taken away from our main character. It’s cathartic in the best way possible.
- A story about finding connections with others, especially after an incredible loss.
- The protagonist has a unique perspective, but one that we are made to understand and empathize with through the book.
- There are incredibly sad moments throughout this book, as well as beautiful and cathartic moments of joy, as our main character learns to better navigate a world that has been hostile to him beforehand.
- The cast of this novel comes from many different walks of life, each with its own interesting and engaging characteristics for you to fall in love with.
- You may find yourself wondering what happened to some of the characters at the end of the book. Then again, that just shows how great a job the author did at making you love them!
So, as you can see, there’s plenty for you to get stuck into when it comes to Korean works of literature.
Some are sad, some are uplifting. Some are tense, some are full of vigor and exuberance.
I hope that you enjoy at least some of these stories as much as I did and that you thank the translators of these works as much as you praise the authors, too!
Frequently Asked Questions
What Makes Korean Literature So Interesting?
While I think everyone will take something different away from Korean literature, one of its strongest points that many people remark about it is its strong themes of modernism vs traditional schools of thinking, as well as the political undertones that pervade many books.
Both South and North Korea are relatively young countries that have become famous on the world stage, and the many innovations that have been made there bleed into many aspects of its modern culture and history.
What Is The Most Famous Piece Of Korean Literature?
For the longest time, poetry like Soji was the most famous form of literature in Korea and is still popular to this day.
While many amazing and seminal Korean works have been written over the years, probably the most famous work is The Heartless from 1917, by Yi Kwang-Su, often considered the father of modern Korean literature.
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