Review: The Impossible Fairy Tale by Han Yujoo

Here’s a warning: There are plenty of vertigo-inducing moments in Han Yujoo’s debut novel The Impossible Fairy Tale. The strange but straightforward plot from the first half turns in and back on itself in the second half like a Christopher Nolan film, to dizzying effect. As the narrator states: “even as you’re being deceived, you’re not deceived, and even as you’re not being deceived, you’re deceived still. In this way, the sole objective of the stories I want to tell is to throw you into an unclear state, to make you believe while you’re not able to believe.”

I’m getting ahead of myself. Before we laud Yujoo for her brilliance with form and construction, we should applaud her plot. The novel opens in 1998 in “an ordinary residential area in a city outside Seoul,” a place that is “both everywhere and nowhere.” Mia is a lucky 12-year-old student spoiled by two fathers who rival for her and her mother’s affections. Her days are filled with the banalities and cruelties of children: visits with her new deskmate; the boys playing a fainting game in the back of the classroom; one boy loudly declaring how he killed four small chicks simply to watch them die.

Into this boisterous mix comes a student known simply as The Child: a “luckless” girl whose “eyes resemble the eyes of a fish.” When she sneaks into the classroom one night and writes an additional sentence in each child’s journal, she sets in motion a series of events that bolster the dark ambitions of the children, ending in a terrible murder.

And that’s when Yujoo pulls the rug out from under us. Part 2 opens with the book’s writer giving a lecture on narrative construction in 2013, and when she looks out at her students she sees The Child from Part 1 sitting at a desk, filling the author with “both an unnameable sense of happiness and unease.” She has questions the author didn’t expect, such as is she alive or is she dead, and who is responsible for the murder: her or the writer?

Experimental fiction is often derided by those outside high literary circles as cerebral and unemotional, as some authors focus exclusively on form at the expense of plot and connection. Han Yujoo, however, is not an experimental writer so much as a writer who experiments with narrative construction, meaning her work is a victory of form that packs an emotional wallop. She pulls the reader into the text using traditional experimental techniques such as clever use of second person, then goes beyond, establishing a more powerful — and confounding — connection through shared memory, repetition and heart.

Finishing The Impossible Fairy Tale, then, is like waking up from a dream so real it feels like a forgotten memory. With her shifts and slights of hand, Han Yujoo makes us question the narrative constructions we lean on to understand and move through our own worlds, leaving us in a state of unknowing that is both terrifying and exhilarating.