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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Ch'oe Yun

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To purchase Mannequin

Title: Mannequin
Author: Ch'oe Yun
Genre: Novel
Written: 2003 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 223 pages
Original in: Korean
Availability: Mannequin - US
Mannequin - UK
Mannequin - Canada
Maniquí - España
  • Korean title: 마네킹
  • Translated by Jung Yewo

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Our Assessment:

A- : nicely done, nicely felt

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The figure at the center of Mannequin is Yi Jina, called Jini, a beautiful girl who is seventeen when she runs away from home at the start of the novel. Discovered as a model when she was an infant, she has lifted her family out of poverty and is tremendously successful. The father has died in the meantime, but the family still lives all together: the mother, nicknamed Agar-Agar; the manager-brother, known as Shark; the not quite as beautiful sister called Starfish -- as well as Conch, who has been taking care of Jini for years now and lives with the family. The novel shifts back and forth between the different perspectives of these characters -- as well as one outsider, nicknamed Lionfish --, some of them speaking for themselves, other chapters (those focused on Jini and Agar-Agar) in the voice of an omniscient narrator.
       It takes a while for the story to take shape, as the overlap of the different perspectives is not immediately clear. Lionfish's story begins with an encounter he and his fiancée have with what turns out to have been Jini on a photo shoot while diving -- a fleeting but pivotal encounter:

The expansive, yet brief moment in which D and I saw the woman underwater was no more than one minute. That one minute became a point of no return in my life and D's life.
       Lionfish and D (also called Pink Anemone) go through with the wedding, but he almost immediately loses his wife -- and, haunted by the brief encounter with Jini, eventually obsessively sets out in search of her. Her family, too, desperately searches for her -- including Conch, who eventually teams up with Lionfish as they go on the road in the hopes of finding her.
       Jini is voiceless -- which can be traced to a traumatic event when she was nine, a turning point that is repeatedly returned to (and slowly more completely revealed) over the course of the novel. Nevertheless, she easily manages to get by on the road, connecting with a variety of people in a variety of ways. She is portrayed as a remarkable sort of creature, of astonishing beauty, but also, despite her fame, able to remain largely anonymous and unrecognized as she moves around the country.
       The identity of the characters is also strongly tied to her: they see Jini as an important figure in their lives -- "I made Jini who she is today, but it would only be fair to say that Jini, too, made me who I am", Conch says, for example -- and, haunted by everything that she has been to them, they struggle to adapt to her absence. But part of her journey is also their journey of dealing with her absence and of finding themselves. Along the way, Starfish becomes a stand-in of sorts for Jini, while Shark dreams of buying an island he can retreat to -- and insists:
I'm going to stop aging when I'm twenty-two. I've experienced everything that's worth experiencing by people older than that.
       Lionfish, too, felt similarly at the beginning of the story:
     The things I had wanted so desperately to achieve became tedious and boring. [...] I was too young to end everything and too old to start over.
       The change he was preparing for -- marriage -- turns out to have been a false step, and instead he finds that seeking out his "little goddess" is necessary to make a real transition.
       Ch'oe Yun weaves and spins a fine tale here, the almost unreal Jini effectively presented as both a powerful and ethereal presence, while the individual stories of the others -- which, despite the overlap and connections, remain very much individual -- impress as well. These are in many ways tortured souls, with only Jini able to cast off her burdens, but despite all the darkness Ch'oe's novel isn't really despairing or bleak: despite everything that's happened, it's surprisingly hopeful -- while never shying away from cold realities (a lot of bad things happen and have happened along the way).
       There's a revealing bluntness throughout, the characters willing to peer deep into themselves and acknowledge even ugly truths (even as they do spin them in ways to at least make them bearable). As Starfish says:
I know that no one wants to face the truth. My short life experience has taught me that it takes a ot of work to face the truth, and it doesn't really pay. I don't mean to say, though, that I'm hiding something that has to be exposed. I'm just saying, fair is fair.
       With effective and only occasionally heavy-handed symbolism -- there is that headless mannequin that the family keeps, on which they always put Jini's outfits for whatever her next shoot was ... -- Mannequin is an impressively layered story that captures a variety of characters and voices exceptionally well. Dosing poignancy and sentimentality well, the novel manages to feel very real and grounded, despite all its fantastical invention and Jini's often almost fairy-tale-like wanderings.
       An impressive achievement and an effectively moving tale.

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 November 2016

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Mannequin: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       South Korean author Ch'oe Yun (최윤) was born in 1953.

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© 2016-2021 the complete review

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