What do fairy tales mean to you? Readers who open Han Yujoo’s “The Impossible Fairy Tale” and place a particular emphasis on the title’s third and fourth words may be perplexed or thoroughly discombobulated. This isn’t the sort of fairy tale a reader might expect, either from the traditionalist or revisionist camp. While the actions of children do play a significant part here, their actions can seem mysterious or counterproductive from an elder’s perspective — just as is the case in life.

The novel’s title houses numerous contradictions, and the novel’s text embraces them. As is the case with many fairy tales, the nature of storytelling itself is at the heart of things: both the stories we tell each other and the narratives of ourselves that we try our hardest to shape, reality be damned.

Initially, “The Impossible Fairy Tale” focuses on a girl named Mia and the life she lives in 1998. She has a complicated familial situation, as well as a fondness for colored pencils — and, in the novel’s early pages, that fixation on color infuses the prose. “Each time she got sick, five shades of color would appear on her face — red, yellow, violet, green, and black,” the novel’s narrator recounts. The narration here is active, occasionally pausing the narrative to reveal details about various characters’ future lives along the way; it’s omniscient, but in a very peculiar way. Slowly, emphasis shifts from Mia to one of her classmates, a girl known only as the Child, who evades easy summation. “It is impossible to describe the Child’s expression or voice,” the narrator notes a quarter of the way through the book. At times, the Child seems deeply human, a wounded youth in trouble; at others, she acts as an agent of change and even violence, leading to a number of genuinely unsettling scenes.

The novel’s second half shifts space and time, but the Child remains a constant presence in the narrative, albeit in a different context. All of this leads to a grander statement touching on concepts of guilt, memory and identity. The narrative touchstones for “The Impossible Fairy Tale” are disparate, though both Helen Oyeyemi’s novel “Mr. Fox” and David Lynch’s film “Mulholland Drive” come to mind.

In other words, this is a work whose author has delved deeply into the question of what stories and storytelling mean to us, for good and for ill, and who has the boldness to push this novel into unpredictable yet emotionally wrenching territory. It’s a powerful and primal work, a deliberately constructed story that incorporates irrationality, fear and change, and holds the reader’s attention throughout.

 

Tobias Carroll is managing editor of Vol. 1 Brooklyn. He lives in New York.

The Impossible Fairy Tale
By: Han Yujoo, translated from the Korean by Janet Hong.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 214 pages, $16.