Reviews

The Hole by Hye-Young Pyun

by @SemaphoreRaven

Humans are social creatures. We need human contact like plants need water—without it, we wither and die. Quarantine brought that into sharp focus. As we learned to bake homemade sourdough and finally sat down to teach ourselves French, something slowly gnawed away at our souls. When would we actually see another human being again, other than the masked stranger we paid to bring groceries to our door or the digital faces of coworkers on a Zoom call? When would we be able to go to a bar with friends and shoot the shit over a drink or two? When would we be able to feel the simple warmth of another person’s hand within our own? Without answers to these questions, the gnawing only worsened, leaving us with empty pits in our hearts that all the fresh-baked sourdough in the world couldn’t fill.

Or maybe it would be more accurate to call them Holes.

BEHIND THE PEN

Hye-Young Pyun is a South Korean author whose debut short story Shaking Off Dew won Seoul Shinmun’s New Writer’s Award in 2000. She has since produced four short story collections and five novels, the most recent being The Law of Lines in May 2020. Her work has been described as Kafka-esque and often focuses on alienation and grief. To quote the woman herself in an interview with the New Yorker, “I like to write about things like irony and the duality of human nature.”

The Hole is an expansion of Pyun’s short story “Caring For Plants” and her second work to be translated into English. In Korean, the prefix hol- means “alone,” most commonly used to denote a widowed person.

A NO-SPOILER SUMMARY

Oghi finds his life in shambles after the car accident that killed his wife and left his body crippled and disfigured. Barely able to move or communicate, his entire world shrinks to within the four walls of his bedroom. His only companion and caretaker is his mother-in-law, a widow grieving the death of her only child. Then his mother-in-law begins digging holes in what was once his wife’s meticulously maintained garden. When asked why, she says she is finishing what her daughter started. Trapped by a body that barely moves and a caretaker he doesn’t trust, Oghi can only dwell on his past, left to slowly realize the truth of his marriage and the toll it took on his wife.

VOICES FROM WITHIN

Discussion started right off the bat with several HOWLers expressing horror at the idea of their own mother-in-laws being responsible for their medical care and “in-law horror” being declared a thing. (Bringing back the 2020 comparison from the introduction, imagine not only being confined to your house, but to your own bed, and the only person who can look after you is your mother-in-law.) To quote one member on the topic, “I think I’m going to need a good long rest after this book. Read some stories about people eating their own fingers for entertainment.”

Oghi was universally agreed to be an unlikeable protagonist (the exact words used were “knob,” “cock womble,” and “absolute turdbucket”) but an interesting one. Readers also quickly pinned him as an unreliable narrator who omits ugly details and talks himself up like a true narcissist. Does he deserve to be locked into his own unresponsive body, cut off from everyone but his mother-in-law, and put through everything else a horror book can offer? HOWLers agreed that, no, not even Oghi deserves that. They were left in the strange position of simultaneously hating and feeling sorry for him.

That is not to say that the other characters are particularly likeable. Readers considered Oghi’s mother-in-law and deceased wife more relatable but still deeply flawed people. Not even minor characters got away with a hint of likeability—HOWLers particularly directed venom at a physical therapist who only appears for a few pages. One member said that if this book were an AITA thread on Reddit, it would get an ESH verdict. Another member called for a future category to be ESH.

Following Oghi and his mother-in-law was a tense, uncomfortable experience. Not only is there the physical and personal horror of confinement and neglect, but as details about the characters and their pasts unfold, the truth of their relationships turn out to be bitterly tragic and brutally realistic. A hole can be a metaphor for a lot of things, and none of them are healthy in a relationship. While not all HOWLers were satisfied with the ending, the strength of the narrative led to general consensus that “This was a miserable read and I loved it.”

WELCOME TO THE BLURBS: HOWL SOCIETY MEMBERS’ REVIEWS IN THEIR OWN WORDS

  • I’ve not had this much fun hating every character since reading The Cipher!
    ~Senobyte

  • The Hole appeared to lack depth at first, but as soon as some discussion started flying, it sucked me in. Every character in this book is deeply flawed and would be detestable if you weren’t shown how exactly they got that way. Little happens, but it draws you into the pit regardless!
    ~Chris O’Halloran

  • If you like stories with a slew of hateable characters and uncomfortable amounts of despair, then this might be the story for you. I can’t say it was an enjoyable read but it was certainly very well executed.
    ~RyanMarie

  • It is a slow burn that really ramps up in the third act and delivers a great, albeit imperfect, ending.
    ~thea-maeve

  • A book that does so much with few pages, The Hole is best enjoyed without any advance knowledge of its plot. Sinister and foreboding, this novel is grounded in real-life horror, which makes it all the more grim. Recommended for not just horror readers, but thriller and drama lovers as well. It’s short and sweet and can easily be finished in a few days.
    ~Leviathan15

IN CONCLUSION

The Hole won our readers over with its tense, uncomfortable atmosphere. It is a heavy read for such a short book, so if you are seeking a popcorn read, I would advise you look elsewhere. But if you’re looking for a claustrophobic psychological thriller and don’t mind flawed, unlikeable characters, there’s plenty to dig in The Hole. 

HOWLS SCORE: BARK! (4/5)

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