Ha's writing derives its strength not from updating or subverting known tropes, but from her ability to create — and Hong's ability to translate — an atmosphere so sinister it becomes impossible to tell the innocuous from the dangerous, the supernatural from the mundane ... Ha writes with keen social awareness, consistently meshing feminism with class criticism ... Her protagonists' exhaustion and frustration work in tandem with her spooky prose, ultimately reminding readers that our world can be as dark as any fairytale.
A crucial voice in the burgeoning movement of feminist fiction from South Korea, Ha is a master of atmospheric suspense whose stories use shock and horror to dissect contemporary gender-based violence and its historical roots ... We could call Ha’s personal genre 'domestic surrealism' ... Janet Hong’s translation and rendering of Ha’s style is so uniformly applied that it brings an extra cohesiveness to the collection. In fact, it is precisely the detached coolness of this voice that is so effectively disturbing in conjunction with the grotesque facts it describes. They are tales that could appear sprawled across the front page of a tabloid, but Hong treats them without a hint of sensationalism ... While her characters are decidedly plain (corpse notwithstanding), Ha’s landscapes are elegant and painterly, expertly exposing the fissures between appearances and reality ... Each story is a clever investigation into the tensions between the personal and the communal, violence and peace—particularly in the lives of women. The moments of true horror are carefully rationed, showing the author’s mastery of atmospheric suspense. Yet she makes no real conclusions or judgments—the stories are cold cases. Ha peels back the layers encasing crimes of hatred, misogyny, and despair, but never quite lays blame or follows them through to see justice done. Is the jury out, or is she leaving the verdict to the reader? Perhaps she is unwilling to appease our need for a moral to the story—after all, these aim to be depictions of real life, not fables ... After an acclaimed debut, Bluebeard’s First Wife is a forceful and impressive second collection. These stories succeed in unsettling us, not only by exposing our worst nightmares about what lies behind forbidden doors, but also by asking us whose fault it was to enter. The answer is clear, isn’t it?
Misdirection abounds in the collection, a technique which naturally—and delightfully so—acts in juxtaposition to the author’s straightforward writing style. While beautifully crafted, most of Ha’s sentences are succinct in structure and detail, with only occasional pitstops for mischievous flourishes ... Upon first blush, the stories of Ha Seong-Nan appear both accessible and familiar in ambition. They rely on common narrative sparks and are presented without stylistic overkill. Yet this veneer permits Ha to shake each story like a snow globe, blurring the obvious and constructing something new and unpredicted ... We can all only hope that Janet Hong’s terrific translations continue and that they provide the English-speaking world opportunities for enchantment by a master storyteller for years to come.