Did you enjoy the warm fuzzies of Stand By Me but wished that the dead body was something scarier, like a zombie? Or a ghost? Did you wish there was more trash? Then Familiar Things by Hwang Sok-Yong is for you.
Familiar Things takes place over thirty years ago, in Seoul, North Korea. Have you ever seen a Super Landfill? The sixth largest one in the country is near us. It’s like a mountain. Bugeye and his mother live on a Super Landfill so big it qualifies as an island (ironically named Flower Island). Poor Bugeye must shoulder the indignity shacking up with a new father figure in a literal shack made of old water bottles and shit. The residents of Flower Island live on a mountain of trash. Their homes are made of discarded materials. They clothe themselves in tossed aside rags. Pulling the most useful of the recyclables from the waste is how they make their living.
Bugeye is bitter and useful, malleable to the way of life before him. He settles into the rhythms of overwork and underschooling; running around with his literary scene-stealing little “stepbrother,” Baldspot (yeah, all the Flower Island kids have these kind of names, probably due to all the stable childhood). He and Bugeye rendezvous with eccentric dwellers of the trash island; living and…not-so-living?
The Sweetest Little Sucker Punch
I enjoyed Familiar Things. It seems such a cloying book, barely over two-hundred pages, voiced by an adorably gruff young teen boy. One minute he’s throwing punches (successfully, might I add), the next wondering when his dad is coming home. What Bugeye does throughout his day is simple, as are his thoughts. The language Sok-Yong uses is plain. The sentences are short but not staccato. The semicolons are sparing.
I was immersed in the narrative, enjoying my time in the boys’ trash clubhouse, when I suddenly realized Hwang was air-dropping me a pamphlet warning me against global warming, consumerism, and the loss of human connection: to each other, to our things, to our environment. This was deep. Familiar Things is a meditation. When mulling these apocalyptic themes-even when the catastrophic happens-Sok-Yong stays devastatingly true to his clean, lyrical tone.
In honor of Halloween, what are some of your favorite spooky books? Have you had any ghostly experiences? Let me know in the comments below! If you enjoyed this review, pretty please share it.
Missed my last book review? Click here!