A Review of The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories by Caroline Kim

Corey Campbell

The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories
by Caroline Kim
Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020.
213 pages

It’s no surprise that The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories, Caroline Kim’s debut short story collection, won the 2020 Drue Heinz Literature Prize from the University of Pittsburgh Press and (as of this writing) was longlisted for the 2021 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection. These strong and emotionally resonant stories focus largely on the lives of those who left Korea and those who stayed behind.

The mostly first-person stories are told by a great variety of often-bewildered, yet enduring narrators — older men now in America navigating intergenerational conflict and questioning the value of their new chosen lives; teenage daughters of immigrants searching for community and grappling with what a person can become; widows and mothers exploring connections beyond boredom or sorrow. The variety of voices is a strength, as is Kim’s playfulness in form and reach. Here readers find a second-person account of long-ago village life, a futuristic tale told in diary entries, and a nearly ancient tale presented as an unofficial record, told through a story-within-a-story structure.

What holds the stories together? Kim’s statement from the Notes following the twelve stories provides a useful frame: “About a decade and a half ago, I found myself going through a serious identity crisis. I kept wondering what my life would have been like had my family decided to stay in Korea. What would the Korean version of me be like? Would I look different? Would I like different things?” (207). Though this statement arrives at the book’s end, it encapsulates the collection for me. The Prince of Mournful Thoughts is so much about the straddling of two worlds. Three of the narratives, including the stunningly written title story, are set in Korea decades (even centuries) ago, while the others primarily focus on life after departure.

Of the stories set in Korea, the journeying-through-war narrative “Seoul” perhaps acts as an anchor, following a mother, her son Sung, and his siblings as they walk for days to reach Seoul, attempting to escape the tumult of the Korean War. One section opens: “Sung’s family was surprised to find that they were on the northern side of the line dividing Korea ... They just wanted to be left alone. What did it matter who controlled the government? Communism. Democracy. Really, who cared?” (69). The narrative both contextualizes the larger swaths of history but also brings it to a relatable human scale. Sung’s fears include the welfare of his family, including his very sick younger brother, but also his own gnawing hunger — something as simple as that can destabilize you. These are stories of suffering and resilience, yes, but also stories of place-finding, of contending with fractured selves, considering what might have been.

The story “Arirang” focuses primarily on a poor village woman struggling with pregnancy, an uninterested husband, and a mother-in-law who treats her as a servant. These heartbreaks are beautifully explored, but it’s the end section that gives the story an unexpected lift and resonance. On the final page we learn in quick summary that this village woman ultimately left behind these landscapes, ending up in Montana married to an American, raising American children. In this move, readers are reminded of the multitudes contained in one person (to borrow from Whitman), the acknowledgment that we rarely know what one person has endured in the long span of her life. I found that choice here particularly moving.

While “Arirang” bridges Korean and American experiences, the collection’s overarching structure carries readers to the pivotal intersection of the two worlds — the moment of departure — in the final story, “Goodbye, Goodbye.” In it a family gathers at a Korean airport to bid farewell to those moving to America. This scene, told from a child’s perspective, carries the weight of an often-remembered moment. The last lines, from an airplane window, embody the ambiguity of having departed without having arrived yet: “Now we are up and everybody I used to know are black-haired legs. Now they are gone. Now the buildings are gone. Now Korea is gone” (206). This powerful choice to suspend readers at the point of departure underscores a crucial aspect of the book: leaving is a pivotal, irrevocable action that reverberates for the remainder of a person’s life.

The collection’s title story contains this line: “We knew that some terrible line had been crossed, and once crossed, the way back could not be found” (186). In a lecture at Warren Wilson College I heard Charles Baxter call this narrative mechanism a “one-way gate.” The movement through the “one-way gate” is an act that cannot be reversed. Once through, the character is changed, unable to turn back. Throughout the collection, Kim compellingly activates and engages such moments, often locating characters on the other side of that one-way gate. Those who have chosen to leave reckon with the shapes of their lives now in another country. In “Not Unusual for a Korean,” for example, a hardworking, uncommunicative father tries to convey his disappointment in his son through his daughter, the narrator. At one point, he blames his wife for the sorrows of their life: “It’s your fault too! … You and me and our two measly stores … What do you think we’ve been scrimping and saving for? To feed and clothe these two idiots we have for children?” (175). Having left — having made that irrevocable decision to leave — the father finds he doesn’t recognize the shape of his own life.

In depicting these struggles and disappointments, Kim conveys her characters with great empathy. I appreciate that she allows characters to voice their bewilderment and larger questioning. Soon after his moment of blame, the father in “Not Unusual for a Korean” almost crashes the car with his family in it, as observed by his daughter: “The bridge appeared like a great white monument and then flashed by. I’d been sure we’d hit it. I was sure he wanted to. But after we passed it, he slowed down and slumped his shoulders over the wheel. He said in English: ‘I don’t understand…’” (175). Kim plays the moment with an emotional precision that feels authentic. Similarly, the mother in “Seoul” reckons with her son’s illness sustained soon after their arrival in the city: “She could still hear him calling, Mother, Mother, I’m here! … She wondered why she had been born, why anybody was — it was bewildering and unknown” (82). The careful attention paid to these unsettled states and Kim’s deft handling of emotion give the stories an almost philosophical depth.

As moving as the other stories may be, the major achievement in this collection may be the title story, a retelling of a true tale originally written in Korean by Lady Hong in the eighteenth century. “I wrote it because I could not find a fictional account of it in English,” Kim wrote in the Notes, “though I am sure there are many Korean versions” (208). In Kim’s retelling, the narrative is structured as an account by a former palace assistant who witnessed the mental deterioration of Prince Sado, once heir to the Korean dynasty. Kim creates a terrible tension as Prince Sado turns to murder as a pastime, terrorizing the kingdom as the narrative builds to the king’s consequential decision. Full disclosure: several years ago I attended a summer workshop that Kim also attended, and the workshop piece she brought in — this title story — was stunning then, and remains so in published form.

Picking up Caroline Kim’s debut collection, I knew that the title story alone would make The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories meaningful; how wonderful to find within it so many other moving depictions of human grace and, yes, resilience in the face of suffering.


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