San is 22 and alone when she happens upon a job at a flower shop in Seoul's bustling city center. Haunted by childhood rejection, she stumbles through life—painfully vulnerable, stifled, and unsure. She barely registers to others, especially by the ruthless standards of 1990s South Korea.Over the course of one hazy, volatile summer, San meets a curious cast of characters: the nonspeaking shop owner, a brash coworker, quiet farmers, and aggressive customers. Fueled by a quiet desperation to jump-start her life, she plunges headfirst into obsession with a passing magazine photographer.
... shattering and salient ... Narrated in the present tense, the book has a dreamlike immediacy ... In scenes saturated with feeling, Shin depicts a milieu bristling with classism and misogyny, dramatizing the desires and dreams of a protagonist who, in her own defenseless way, strives for both independence and connection. Shin writes in her Afterword that 'Violets are very small plants. So small they're easily overlooked as weeds,' but the care she gives to her telling of San's story argues that even the most vulnerable are worthy of respect.
Violets is a novel built on the proximity of beauty and violence ... We don’t see any large-scale social unrest; instead Shin finds indirect and nuanced ways to conjure the atmosphere of a place where flourishing is thwarted at every turn ... [There are] several moments when the narrative voice takes over, appearing to have more power and agency than the characters ... The all-knowing narrator can feel a little arch, but at its best, there’s a timeless, fable-like quality to the narration that makes the story strange and gripping. Because the narrator is so powerful, San herself seems to have terrifyingly little control over her destiny from moment to moment – itself a feeling presented as universal at this time in Seoul. Shin has an intense feeling for place, and an ability to bring it alive not as mere setting but as intensely felt imaginative terrain.
With this beautifully translated requiem to the unseen women who live in the shadow of rejection, erasure, and oppression, Kyung-sook Shin brings a powerful indictment of a society that sacrifices its citizens in the name of progress. It is also a sad commentary on South Korea that the novel’s depiction of female marginalization is as urgent and necessary as it was when Violets was originally published two decades ago.