If you only read one translated book this year, make it The Cabinet by Un-su Kim, translated by Sean Lin Halbert. This is probably the most unique book I’ve ever read – at least the most unique book I remember. It is truly something special and hits that sweet spot between speculative and literary fiction.
Many thanks to the wonderful Caroline at Angry Robot for sending me an ARC. All opinions are my own.
RELEASE DATE: 12/10/2021
STAR RATING: 5/5 ✶
SUMMARY: Cabinet 13 looks exactly like any normal filing cabinet. Except this cabinet is filled with files on the ‘symptomers’, people whose weird abilities and bizarre experiences might just mark the emergence of a new species.
But to Mr Kong, the harried office worker who spends his days looking after the cabinet, the symptomers are just a headache; from the woman whose doppelganger broke up with her boyfriend, to the man with a ginkgo tree growing from his fingertip. And then there’s that guy who won’t stop calling, asking to be turned into a cat… (from Angry Robot)
OPINIONS: This is a mind-blowing book. I’ve been raving about it at everyone who would listen for the whole time I was reading it, which, for my standards, has been a very long time. This isn’t the kind of book you sit down and devour in a single sitting, it is the sort of story you savour slowly, over the course of weeks, which you digest bit by bit and come back for more again and again. It is truly something special, something absolutely weird and wonderful. If you only read one translated novel this year, make it this one – not that you shouldn’t read far more translated fiction than that. I’m reading a few others at the moment, and I’m really enjoying it. I think The Cabinet is inspiring me to seek out more Asian speculative writing, which is really the highest compliment I can give a book.
In this, Un-su Kim unashamedly writes away from what we consider Western conventions of story-telling – it is easy for me to say that The Cabinet is utterly unique – it certainly is from my perspective as a European reader, but perhaps that is also showing my ignorance of Korean literary conventions that he is moving within. I can say that it is a very special book though. It is the story of a man, a sort of mash-up between curator and janitor, tasked with taking care of Cabinet 13, the titular cabinet, which contains files on all sorts of weird and wonderous occurrences, showing where the magical intersects with the mundane. These vingnettes intersect with the framing narrative, and paint a vivid picture of a world where anything is possible. In some ways, it is reminiscent of the Russian fantastic literature of the sort written by Gogol, vaguely remembered from the early semesters of my literature degree, but not quite.
The Cabinet is a work of speculative fiction, but not one that will appeal to every reader of genre fiction. It skews more literary and requires a different sort of reader than the sort of epic fantasy novel likely to hit bestseller lists. It is an intellectual book, one that requires the right mood – but one that is worth every second you invest in it. I think it is one that I will be returning to again and again, one that will be staying on my mind for a very long time.