An adventure-satire of epic proportions, which sheds new light on the changes Korea experienced in its rapid transition from pre-modern to post-modern society.

Set in a remote village in South Korea, Whale follows the lives of three linked characters: Geumbok, an extremely ambitious woman who has been chasing an indescribable thrill ever since she first saw a whale crest in the ocean; her mute daughter, Chunhui, who communicates with elephants; and a one-eyed woman who controls honeybees with a whistle. A fiction that brims with surprises and wicked humour, from one of the most original voices in South Korea.  

Whale was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2023, announced on April 18, 2023.

The International Booker Prize 2023
Published by
Europa Editions
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Cheon Myeong-kwan

Cheon Myeong-kwan

About the Author

Cheon Myeong-kwan is a South Korean novelist, screenwriter and director whose work has been translated into eight languages.
More about Cheon Myeong-kwan
Chi-Young Kim

Chi-Young Kim

About the Translator

Chi-Young Kim is a literary translator and editor, who trained as a lawyer before taking up translation, initially as a hobby.
More about Chi-Young Kim

Cheon Myeong-kwan on Whale

‘The image of a very large woman was the genesis of this novel. I was drawn to the tragedy of her enormous corporeality and began plotting out the story. I recently watched Darren Aronofsky’s film featuring a 272-kilogram man, and I was surprised to learn that the film’s title was also The Whale; it too symbolizes massive physicality and loneliness.

‘I wrote the first draft of Whale in three months and then revised it for three more months, for a total of six months. I typed it out, spending a long time on the first chapter. Because the first chapter encompasses the entire plot of the novel, the whole narrative had to be settled in that first chapter. After that chapter, I wrote the rest really quickly, like I was taking dictation.’

Read the full interview here.

Cheon Myeong-kwan

What the judges said

‘A carnivalesque fairy tale that celebrates independence and enterprise, a picaresque quest through Korea’s landscapes and history, Whale is a riot of a book. Cheon Myeong-Kwan’s vivid characters are foolish but wise, awful but endearing, and always irrepressible. This is a hymn to restlessness and self-transformation.’

What the critics said

Ellie Eberlee, The Massachusetts Review

‘The writer constructs characters with tragicomic precision. Settings are rendered in similarly scrupulous detail; individual lines exhibit evident pleasure in their writing. Still, Whale does not overstay its welcome. In its brisk handling of large swaths of time and geography, Myeong-kwan’s storytelling evokes the mastery of Gabriel García Márquez—whose presence suffuses everything from the story’s deft incorporation of magical realism to its capacious assemblage of intergenerational experience. Put another way: there’s a breathtaking amount of story here, replete with surrealist undercurrents and the colors, smells, and textures of everyday Korean life. The result? Awe; hearts at once full and broken. But this, it seems, is the law of reading.’

Christian House, Financial Times

‘Told in an omniscient and playful narrative voice, smoothly translated by Chi-Young, this is a distinctly Korean take on Great Expectations, a tale of aspiration and folly punctuated with artisanal bricks and dried fish.’

Rhianon Holley, Buzz Magazine

Whale’s magical realism provides an entertaining element, imbuing hidden meaning in even the simplest turns of events. It’s worth noting that the novel includes some themes of a distressing nature, but is a unique and ambitious satirical adventure: definitely one for the curious reader.’

Patrick McShane, Asian Review of Books

‘This is the second translation of Whale into English, and this translation presents an engaging, fantastical story of memory and place in an era when society changed and evolved from slow traditional ways to the ever-increasing fast pace of modern life.’

Philip Gowman, London Korean Links

‘I suspect if you were to ask the author he would not wish the story to be taken too seriously. That certainly seemed to be his message, reading between the lines, of his discussion of his first novel to make it into English, Modern Family. Whale is an entertaining romp of a tale with puzzles aplenty to which there may not be any answers. Just enjoy the ride.’