For readers familiar with Korean history, the novel affords a pleasure of recognition like that of a roman à clef. Most of the events are based on real historical incidents: the Gwangju Uprising; the torture and murder of university students during the Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan dictatorships before South Korea transitioned to a democracy in 1988; and the collapse of the Sampoong Department Store in 1995, which took 502 lives and is fictionalized in “Excavations” as the Aspiration Tower tragedy. Sae’s experiences in the novel echo those of many Koreans in my parents’ generation: My father, too, was involved in anti-dictatorship protests and read banned books. At his wedding, his face was red from tear gas. As an introductory checklist of shameful figures and moments in the dark decades of colonial and post-World War II South Korea, “Excavations” delivers.
But the most absorbing moments in “Excavations” are not so momentous; they are where the quotidian, tangible details cluster — the meal of pork kimchi jjigae that a sex worker cooks for the motherly madam with a heart of gold, or the madam’s tears as she spots mildew in her window frame, a reminder of how hard she’s worked to keep her house spotless.
These effective storytelling techniques stand in contrast to Michell’s characters, however, who render as one-dimensional. Sae’s particular brand of feminism is reduced to the message that the patriarchy is bad, often in exchanges that feel anachronistic. When she was a student activist, “the other female students thought [Sae] to be arrogant because she refused to make coffee for the older senior male students during the meetings.” At one point the madam tells her: “You could be really pretty … with a little make up. Some nice clothes. But you don’t really care, do you?” “Not really,” says Sae. “You don’t really care what others think of you. … Perhaps you’re freer than most of us,” says the madam.
When Sae meets Jae for the first time at college in 1986, during the Chun dictatorship, she makes an impassioned speech to him about the connection between corporations, exploitative labor and state. Her ending statement, “Do you really think corporations like Taehan care at all about human life?” is met with “stunned silence.” Sae is not wrong. Yet neither is she — and by extension, her relationship with Jae — very interesting.
The moral universe of “Excavations” is equally uncomplicated. On one side stand those who hide the truth. On the other stand those who uncover it, and justice pivots on exposés resulting from these individual acts of heroism. Despite a few moments of self-doubt, Sae has a “hunger for the truth” and pursues “speaking truth to power.” The main weakness of “Excavations” is that these exposés, whether public or personal, never have the weight that they’re automatically assigned in the novel, despite the borrowed gravitas from historical events.
By the end of “Excavations,” I couldn’t help but note the similarities between Michell’s story and K-drama, soapy Korean TV shows that often feature exaggerated dialogue and a comfortingly simple world split into good and bad. K-drama villains are rich and evil. The heroines who stand up against them are poor but plucky, and in recent years they often peddle a naive message of female empowerment. Sae fits the bill almost exactly.
I would have enjoyed deeper characters who gave me more reason to care, but for a quick read, the story’s pacing, dark family secrets, splashy reveals, and complicated — if not emotionally complex — connections among Sae and her friends and enemies keep the plot humming.
Violet Haeun Kim is a writer from Seoul. Her work has appeared in Slate and the Rumpus.
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