Bluebeard’s First Wife by Ha Seong-nan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Disasters, accidents, and deaths abound in Bluebeard’s First Wife. A woman spends a night with her fiancé and his friends, and overhears a terrible secret that has bound them together since high school. A man grows increasingly agitated by the apartment noise made by a young family living upstairs and arouses the suspicion of his own wife when the neighbors meet a string of unlucky incidents. A couple moves into a picture-perfect country house, but when their new dog is stolen, they become obsessed with finding the thief, and in the process, neglect their child. Ha’s paranoia-inducing, heart-quickening stories will have you reconsidering your own neighbors.
Warnings: child death, child abduction, domestic violence, homophobia, gun violence, dubious consent and drunken sex, mention of abortion, fatal accident, animal abuse
Note: Not YA, and not recommended for younger teens; discretion advised for older teens
It’s hard to pin down a connecting theme in this collection of short stories, but I guess the one thing they have in common is they are all unsettling, sometimes in a good way and at times, they are unsettling because they don’t make sense. There are a couple of stories that are like rural Gothic sort of tales, while some are more along the lines of ‘I don’t know what kind of person my husband is’; in fact, weird and unnerving husbands is the theme of some of these stories. I was drawn to this book because of title itself – Bluebeard’s First Wife – and thought some might be some sort of modern retellings; to be fair, that story does have themes of the story, but it takes a very different take on it which I am not sure I entirely like.
The most confusing was O Father because I feel it didn’t fit alongside these other stories at all, and the only unsettling thing about it was its non-linear timeline that just confuses you till the end. Then there were the other stories where I felt some small mystery was hidden in them, and it doesn’t have much to do with the resolution of the story, but leaving that thread unwound sort of unsettled me; one of these was Bluebeard’s First Wife itself where I couldn’t understand a certain scene where a character attacks another. Joy to the World has an unreliable narrator who is probably being gaslit, so that’s another that felt incomplete. Perhaps my favorites in terms of delivering on the tension and paranoia they promised were Night Poaching and On That Green, Green Grass which engage you fully in their narrative, and to some extent, so does Pinky Finger (although this one hits close to home as a woman reading about a regular fear) and Daisy Fleabane which is from the perspective of a drowned corpse. The rest were, well, just depressing more than paranoia-inducing.
Shortly, while a few stories hit the mark, and some didn’t, the lack of a common thread or even theme in this collection didn’t make for a wholly enjoyable reading experience.
Is it diverse? Written by a Korean author, contains an all-Korean cast, and almost all are set in South Korea
Received an advance reader copy in exchange for a fair review from Open Letter, via Edelweiss.
Released on June 16, 2020
One thought on “ARC Review: Bluebeard’s First Wife by Ha Seong-nan & (translated by) Janet Hong”
This is a good review. I’ve been curious about this collection.