Familiar Things

(Natikun sesang)

Hwang Sok-yong

Animated film in development, Sylvain Chomet (Triplets of Belleville, The Illusionist) script written, art work created

Familiar things

Hwang Sok-yong’s FAMILIAR THINGS is a critique of modern society’s urge to use and discard. The novel takes us to the outer edge of Seoul, South Korea’s glittering metropolis and ‘miracle on the Han’, in order to reveal what lurks behind the country’s rapid economic growth.

After his father is sent to a government ‘re-education camp’, fourteen-year-old Bugeye and his mother move to Flower Island, a landfill on the outskirts of Seoul, at the urging of Ashura, a friend of the family. There, Bugeye and his mother build themselves a shack and earn a living weeding recyclables out of the hauls of trash brought there daily from the city. Bugeye becomes friends with Baldspot, Ashura’s son, and soon learns the ins and outs of life on Flower Island. On one of their adventures around the island, Bugeye and Baldspot befriend a mysterious little girl who calls herself ‘Mr Kim’s daughter’.

After the Lunar New Year, spring comes to the landfill. The garbage mountain the rubbish-pickers live on begins to thaw, producing gases that catch fire and engulf the entire island. Bugeye and his mother escape and seek refuge at the emporium. Meanwhile, Baldspot runs back into the flames to rescue a treasured game console Bugeye got him during a rare trip into the city, but he sadly does not make it back.

The richly detailed portrayal of the difficult lives of those driven out of the city like so much human garbage makes for a vivid and entertaining tale that reaffirms Hwang’s literary prowess.

‘With Familiar Things, Hwang turns his attention to the underside of South Korea’s remarkable economic development, namely, the vast underclass it has created. Hwang’s riveting tale of second-class citizenship, in which the main characters are forced to pick through garbage to survive, gestures not just at the country’s past and what was lost during rapid modernization.’ Boston Globe

‘Familiar Things is a cautionary tale, both a mirror and a portent for our own world. Yet, though it is a tragic tale, it is also a defiantly optimistic one. At every turn, the characters manifest remarkable adaptability and spiritual fortitude. Despite the filth and grime to which they have been relegated, they build a life and a culture that, though by no means utopic, nevertheless serves as a testament to human perseverance and the undeterrable growth of new cultural shoots. Though they subsist in a dirty, rotten world, swaddled in clouds of flies and a “vile combination of every bad odour in the world,” the inhabitants of Flower Island live one day at a time, adapting, helping one another, and finding those familiar things that make life worth living — in short: building a new world out of the rotten husks of the old.’ Los Angeles Review of Books

‘Familiar Things is a vivid depiction of a city too quick to throw away both possessions and people.’ Financial Times

‘The measure of a novel is not only its artful telling, but also the power and value of the story being told. Hwang observes what is most familiar to us, the mammoth accumulations of waste in our everyday lives, “the hell that we have created”. He challenges us to look back and re-evaluate the cost of modernisation, and see what and whom we have left behind.’ The Guardian

‘Familiar Things is a poignant novel that depicts decay and regeneration … A sense of menace pervades the novel. But the relationship that develops between Bugeye and Baldspot, who he comes to adopt as his younger brother, is heartwarming.’ Big Issue

‘Familiar Things is both tragic and heartrending. It also feels timeless (it could almost be set in the far past or future, instead of its actual period setting)’ The Skinny Magazine

‘Their life is seen through the adventures of Bugeye, a boy who, with his resourceful mother, survives “every bad odour in the world” to find solidarity among these human “discards and outcasts”. In their reeking shantytown, “children were useless, worth less than scrap metal.” Yet he thrives, and Mr Hwang sweetens his escapades with charm and compassion. Bugeye forgivably asks, “what was the straight and narrow when you lived in a garbage dump?” Still, he transcends the trash to pursue decency and dignity, thanks to ghostly visitations from the farming families who once inhabited an idyllic village here, “thick with bamboo”. Sora Kim-Russell’s translation moves gracefully between gritty, whiffy realism and folk-tale spookiness.’ The Economist

‘It is hauntingly poetical, delicately philosophical, unyielding in its urging to use the past to rescue a present heading for self-destruction… the overall voice that emanates from Familiar Things is truly hypnotic, possessing clarity of truth and a sense of purity that is not to be missed. Hwang Sok-yong has been hailed as one of the most poignant voices in East Asian literature, and Familiar Things evinces the power and the resonance that he deserves to have with an English audience.’ Bookanista

‘Heartbreak and otherworldly beauty from Korea’s most famous novelist, Hwang Sok-yong. In Familiar Things South Korea’s best-known author, Hwang Yok-song uses both waste and mythical creatures to weigh the social and emotional price of a throwaway society.’ South China Morning Post

‘Nine times out of ten, the first name I’d come up with (if asked to name my favourite male Korean writer) would be Hwang Sok-yong, so the (very) recent release of his latest work to make it into English was a cause for celebration around these parts. Happily, the book more than lived up to expectations, and while it’s a fairly short novel, Hwang once again shows he’s a master of skewering the conceit of the Miracle on the Han, exposing the guilty little secrets many people would rather he left hidden…’ Tony’s Reading List

‘Hwang Sok-yong’s juxtaposition of opportunity with the harsh reality of his character’s circumstances that leaves a lasting impression.’ Bookloversbookreview

‘In FAMILIAR THINGS, the great Korean writer embraces the social realities of his country. It is the opposite of the economic miracle that he paints for us here. Beyond simple naturalism, Hwang Sok-yong mixes into the actual, the magic of a popular culture steeped in the spiritual.’ LivresHebdo

‘Hwang Sok-yong is one of the most read Korean writers in his country, and best known abroad. An activist for democracy and reconciliation with the North, in his books he melds his political fights with the Korean cultural imagination.’ Le Monde

‘A great political book, a plea for a country under the boot of a general, a country embroiled in a fierce power struggle, where ideology has been devoured by productivity, where human beings are nothing more than bellies to be filled for the benefit of industrial producers… Grandma Willow in her dementia rails, “You’re despicable! Do you think you live alone here? You men may all disappear, nature will continue to exist!” Let’s hope so!’ Critiques Libres

‘Hwang Sok-yong is an endearing author. For his perspective on people and things, for the instinctive modesty of his characters as well as his ability to “capture” – to return through fiction – the contemporary history of his country. Even more, to embody it.’ La Croix

‘Reality, fiction and fantasy mix closely, giving his writing unparalleled power. Hwang Sok-yong’s empathy for his heroes is always accompanied by a fierce rage against the powerful.’ Le Monde Diplomatique


  • Scribe UK & USA
  • Scribe Australia & NZ
  • Editions Philippe Picquier France
  • Munhakdongne Korea
  • Alianza Spain & Latin America
  • Dogan Kitap Turkey
  • Sonia Draga Poland
  • Arab Scientific Press World Arabic
  • Einaudi Italy
  • Solum Bokvennen Norway
  • Ombra Albania
  • Europa Verlag Germany
  • Hyperion Russia
  • Alatoran Azerbaijan

Film option sold, Sylvain Chomet animating

Material: Korean edition (233pp); French edition (188pp); English edition (224pp)