TO THE WARM HORIZON by Choi Jin-young (BOOK REVIEW)
“Like time, hope is something that does not stay but comes and goes.”
We’ve all reacted to the pandemic differently. Whilst some people have found watching Contagion to be a cathartic experience during lockdown, I have studiously been avoiding any kind of pandemic-based fiction since reading Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) in early 2020 just before the UK went into lockdown. I have broken this streak with Choi Jin-young’s To The Warm Horizon (2021). Choi’s novel is a post-apocalyptic story in which the world is devastated by a global pandemic. These novels inevitably hit differently in a post-pandemic world, despite the fact that when Choi’s novel was published in the original Korean in 2017, the world she describes was simply another science fictional scenario. Reading To The Warm Horizon has been a slightly surreal experience. Whilst the pandemic in Choi’s novel goes a lot worse than the one we have been living through, her quiet, character-focused approach pulls into focus many thoughts and feelings anyone who has lived through the past year will recognise. To The Warm Horizon does not pull its punches; it is a book that is unafraid to explore the depths to which humanity is capable of sinking during a crisis, and it does not let its characters off easily. However, what separates it from, say, John Christopher’s The Death Of Grass (1956) is that To The Warm Horizon also manages to find space for beauty and love, even amidst all the horror and devastation. In Choi’s novel, love does not negate the horrors, but it does make life and hope worth hanging onto. The novel is translated into English by Soje, who does an excellent job of capturing Choi’s lucid, precise prose. Honford Star have done an excellent job bringing this singular book into print in English, and it is adorned by their usual gorgeous cover art, this time by graphic designer Jaehoon Choi.
To The Warm Horizon follows a group of Koreans who have had their lives uprooted by a deadly global pandemic. Fleeing their homes, they have arrived in Russia to find the situation just as grim, as they trek across a ravaged landscape in the hope of finding some safe haven or escape from the bitter cold of the Russian winter. Dori is a young woman who must protect her deaf mute younger sister Joy, her only surviving family member. Jina is travelling with her father and the remnants of their extended family. Joining them is Gunji, her childhood friend who was beaten by his father and relentlessly bullied at school, for whom the new post-apocalyptic world is opening up a chance to discover himself. Ryu left Korea with her husband Dan and her son Haemin following the death of their daughter, and is struggling to repair her fractured relationship with her family. Throughout their journeys, these disparate people are drawn together and driven apart, crossing paths at multiple points throughout their personal attempts to come to terms with the end of the world they knew.
At the heart of To The Warm Horizon is the story of two young women finding love amidst the desolation of the pandemic. Dori and Jina are immediately drawn to each other, and their love survives all the traumas the two of them experience, serving as an inspiration for Gunji and Ryu and anyone else trying to find something worth living for at the end of the world. Choi really shines in her character work, and all of the main characters are compelling and well-drawn, with Choi using simple, precise language to detail their inner lives. Dora, Jina, Gunji and Ryu all struggle with their own personal alienation, and all four have an inherent personal honesty that refuses to let them paint their past lives before the pandemic with rosy nostalgia. Choi’s control over mood and atmosphere is remarkable – she really puts these characters through the blender, but everything is described with a starkly unsentimental realism which does not allow the reader to look away. As such it is frequently an upsetting novel, even as Choi manages to find love and beauty amidst the darkness. The light of Dora and Jina’s love for each other is all the more bright for being able to exist against a backdrop of callous atrocities committed by humanity at its worst.
To The Warm Horizon is also a sobering look at human nature. One of the things that makes it stand out in the post-apocalypse genre is that it acknowledges both the good and the bad in humanity, and how these elements frequently exist side by side. As Dori reflects:
“I’d heard that even if they created a vaccine, it wouldn’t be able to keep up with the mutation rate. Someone must still be working on it though. That’s what humans do. We’re loaded with strange feelings like duty and responsibility. There must be people fighting the good fight alone, determined to keep the world from going to waste. And on the other side, there were people turning this disaster into a festival of murder and madness. There’s both responsibility and madness within me. I can’t say the two are mutually exclusive.”
Choi’s novel is inhabited by characters who like Dori feel the tension of their better and worst instincts at war with one another. This drives people to do horrendous things, but it also winds up being a source of strength. It gives Gunji the determination he needs to follow his dream of finding a new place to live on a nice warm beach somewhere, even after experiencing the horrors of war. It gives Ryu the distance to look back on her difficult relationship with her husband and children, and come to an understanding and acceptance of her complicated feelings that was impossible in their old life.
For all of Choi’s stark realism, there remains a numinous core to To The Warm Horizon that is difficult to pin down in terms of genre. Dori and Jina both seem to have prophetic dreams, allowing them to connect with people in their lives they have left behind, and Joy achieves a beautiful but heart-breaking kind of transcendence. The question of ghosts and hauntings recurs throughout the novel, and it ends with Dori and Jina speculating on whether humanity would even notice if we all died and simply lingered on as spirits. In these moments, the novel reaches out towards the spiritual in a way that is achingly beautiful and profoundly haunting. Along with its impressive character work, it is this that makes the novel linger in the reader’s mind long after the final page.