This Burns My Heart: A NovelDeeply visual but problematic novel explores themes of cultural obligation.

An assistant English professor at Chicago’s Columbia College and author of the one-act play turned novella turned short film Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Samuel Park displays an affinity for stage and screen in his atmospheric and exuberantly filmic new novel.
Inspired by his mother’s memories, This Burns My Heart cuts a chunky swath of postwar South Korea from 1960 through the ’70s funneled through the life arc of sprightly but initially superficial Soo-Ja Choi. Each scene unfolds visually — in darkened stone interiors, busy hotels and coffee houses — with domineering mothers, maniacal fathers, familiar themes of filial piety and cultural obligation, the inevitably unhappy marriage that was never what it appeared. But since the story is centered on Soo-Ja, she is most sharply in focus and not always sympathetically.

In the opening marketplace chase — an event better suited for a flashy film opening than an engrossing foundation for a thoughtful novel — Soo-Ja appears theatrical and narcissistic. When she quickly thereafter plots to use marriage to gain independence and seeks “[s]omeone weak. Who will let me make decisions,” she comes off as naively manipulative, at best working to circumvent women’s constrained options at that time in Korean culture and history while securing her selfish desires.

Yet somehow Park manages to keep readers connected to Soo-Ja throughout the novel, primarily because she soon flips from a petty youth to a more dutiful child and mother, ostensibly matured by expectations of obedience to her new husband’s family. Her purported but little evidenced lust for adventure and travel becomes trapped but not extinguished alongside an unrequited and somewhat implausible love and its accompanying dream of a better life. Rather than developing this love story and Soo-Ja’s inner dreams and emotions in the best ways novels can do, through explication of inner motivations and yearnings as well as nuanced interaction, Park’s novel remains alighted on the plot’s surface.

Thus this and other potentially more fascinating story aspects largely remain backdrop, such as the deposition of Syngman Rhee and South Korea’s conversion to democracy, a newly booming Seoul and a woman’s opportunity to carve out an honest life apart from societal expectation. Park instead sums up such changes and themes in short descriptions: “Her country was changing. Some folks lived like peasants, toiling in rice paddies all day and coming home to huts with thatched roofs at night, while the men and women of the city … bought into Western-style apartment buildings.” This makes sense when envisioning a film focused primarily on a heroine’s life arc and love story, but a novel offers the opportunity to enrich characters and story with details and depth, and Park chose another route.

But while neither a true epic nor a richly detailed historical novel, This Burns My Heartdoes effervesce as a simple but visceral romance in a refreshing Korean setting. Soo-Ja ends the book more likable than at the start, and her core life events remain memorable. The broader story, as intended, appears poised to leap on screen, if Park ends up as lucky as he envisioned his changeable leading lady.


for the Miami Herald
Read more: