Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 11, 2023

Typhoon Kingdom (2019), by Matthew Hooton

Matthew Hooton’s Typhoon Kingdom is a terrific book which deserves more attention than it’s had.  I bought it last year in a sale at UWAP, where you can still buy it for a song, and I’m here to tell you that you should get a copy before they’re all gone.  This is the blurb that attracted my interest:

Based on the seventeenth-century journal of a shipwrecked Dutch sailor, and testimonies of surviving Korean ‘Comfort Women,’ Typhoon Kingdom is a story of war, romance and survival that brings to life the devastating history of Korea at crucial moments in its struggle for independence.

In 1653, the Dutch East India Company’s Sparrowhawk is wrecked on a Korean island, and Hae-jo, a local fisherman, guides the ship’s bookkeeper to Seoul in search of his surviving shipmates. The two men, one who has never ventured to the mainland, and the other unable to speak the language, are soon forced to choose between loyalty to each other, and a king determined to maintain his country’s isolation.

Three-hundred years later, in the midst of the Japanese occupation, Yoo-jin is taken from her family and forced into prostitution, and a young soldier must navigate the Japanese surrender and ensuing chaos of the Korean War to find her.

Matthew Hooton is a teacher of creative writing at the University of Adelaide, but has also worked as an editor and teacher in South Korea where as his UWAP author page tells us, he first encountered stories of the Dutch shipwreck and plight of Korean ‘Comfort Women.’ 

His first novel, Deloume Road, which also features scenes set during the Korean War, was published in 2010 by Knopf/Vintage in Canada, and Jonathan Cape/Vintage in the UK. It was awarded the Greene & Heaton Prize for best manuscript from the Bath Spa Creative Writing MA Program in 2008, and the Guardian’s ‘Not the Booker Prize’ in 2010.

(Now I’m on a mission to source a copy of Matthew Hooton’s first novel Deloume Road. None of my libraries have it but I’ll find one somewhere! Amazon has it. Update, later the same day: thanks to Kim’s comment below, here’s her review of it at Reading Matters and one from the late Kevin from Canada.)

Typhoon Kingdom begins in the 17th century, also known as the Age of Exploration.  Though Hooton’s characters land in the hermit kingdom of Corea (Korea) by misadventure, the novel shows that lands being ‘explored’ by the Europeans were already inhabited and had their own government, customs and foreign policy.  Unfortunately for the sailors of the shipwrecked ‘Sparrowhawk’, trading with Nagasaki for the Dutch East India Company, six of them are escorted to the king on the mainland and the other is covertly whisked away to a much worse fate.  While the six are not ill-treated as they expect to be, they are not allowed to return home because they have knowledge of modern military weapons that the king intends to acquire from them.  (Then, as now, there is hostility between Korea and Japan.) Van Persie, however, rescued by the fisherman Hae-Jo, is kidnapped by a pseudo-shaman who first tortures him, ostensibly to appease the spirits, and then exploits him as a caged exhibit because his blond hair and blue eyes makes him an oddity.

This first section of the novel is told from the perspectives of different characters: the fisherman Hae-Jo; the fictionalised Hyojong, the 17th king of Joseon; and the shipwrecked Dutch sailor Van Persie.  Hae-Jo is poor and ignorant, but his life on the island has insulated him from the cruel mores of the mainland.  He has a sense of humanity which guides him to rescue Van Persie and try to reunite him with the others.  Ji-hoon had warned him about what to expect on his perilous journey:

‘Stay clear of the King’s roads, take shelter in the trees at night, and do not speak to anyone if you can help it.  The King has spies in every village, at every crossing.’

Ji-hoon had also told him many useful and worrying things about the mainland—further rumours of famine, and customs that seem beyond belief.

‘In the capital, there are men who own more slaves than we have grains of rice. This is true.  If a woman kills her husband she is buried up to her neck by the roadside with a saw left next to her. So I am told. And no woman, not even the rich, are permitted outside of their homes during daylight.’

And though he cannot help but laugh at the thought of telling the women divers of his own island such a thing, he is troubled by how deeply different the customs of the mainland are, and he fears he knows even less than he once imagined.  He is a poor guide, a stranger leading a stranger through a strange land. (pp.58-9)

Through the terrors of Van Persie’s experience—alone, vulnerable, unable to communicate and having no agency of his own—Hooton deftly portrays an inversion of what so often happened when Europeans captured ‘exhibits’ to take home for exploitation.  But he does find mercy in the woman who cares for his wounds and from Hae-Jo who risks everything in his quest.

Part 2 is set in 1942. It is also told from three perspectives.  Introduced by a fictionalised General Macarthur hidden in an ancient Dutch East India fort as he waits for evacuation to Australia, The General’s story punctuates the narrative with the long journey to liberate countries from Japanese occupation.  But the main story is the harrowing narrative of Yoo-jin, a doctor with remarkable powers of healing, who is taken to be one of Japan’s so-called Comfort Women, an offensive euphemism for years of rape by Japanese servicemen.  Before she is captured, a boy called Won-jae, comes into her care when his hand has been all but ruined by Japanese brutality.  Possibly a descendant of Van Persie, Won-Jae has blue eyes and through the long years of Japanese occupation followed by the Korean War he cherishes his dream of meeting again the woman who did not treat him as Other.

While the narrative tension is maintained by the hope that Yoo-jin and Won-je may be reunited, I don’t think that Typhoon Kingdom is a ‘romance’ as suggested by the blurb.  But I do think it is a story of love.  It’s about love for one’s fellow man in extreme circumstances. Hae-Jo puts himself at risk because he cares for a stranger who he recognises as a man not unlike himself. Yoo-jin never wavers in her devotion to healing even in the most appalling captivity and somehow manages to suppress her rage to help a wounded enemy.

As I write, amid the warmongering about the ‘threat’ from China, there is pressure on South Korea to mend relations with Japan.  It will surprise no one that the Japanese have steadfastly refused to pay compensation to those who suffered under its rule, and the latest ploy is for South Korean business to establish a fund to compensate those used by the Japanese for slave labour.  It should surprise no one that there is considerable opposition to Japan offloading its responsibility for its war crimes in this extraordinary way.

But I expect that, for geopolitical reasons, the victims will be bullied into accepting it and keeping quiet, the way the Japanese treatment of Australian POWs was airbrushed out of our postwar relationship.

See Rohan Wilson’s review here, reprinted at the global literary agency BJZ based in New York City.  BJZ represents Hooton and is apparently responsible for the Korean New Wave in global publishing which won Barbara J Zwiter the 2016 International Literary Agent of the Year Award.  Her website tells us that she also represents other Australian authors such as Madeleine Ryan and Jamie Marina Lau.

Author: Matthew Hooton
Title: Typhoon Kingdom
Cover design by Peter Long
Publisher: UWAP (University of Western Australia Publishing), 2019
ISBN: 9781760800307, pbk., 282 pages
Source: Personal library


Responses

  1. Oh, has he emigrated to Australia? I read his debut back in 2011 (prompted by a review I saw on KevinfromCanada) and he very kindly participated in my Triple Choice Tuesday. I really loved the book, which I reviewed here: https://readingmattersblog.com/2011/05/08/deloume-road-by-matthew-hooton/

    I will hunt out this new one. Thanks for reviewing it.

    Like

  2. This does sound interesting!

    Like

    • It is! It’s the kind of historical fiction I like because it explores a hidden history that we mostly don’t know.
      BTW I’m just adding the finishing touches to my review of I’ll Leave You With This, I just have to choose an excerpt to quote, and there’s so much to choose from!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. On my library list!

    Like

    • Have they got it?
      One of mine does (Bayside) and the other one doesn’t (Kingston.)

      Liked by 1 person


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