Book Review: The Cabinet by Un-su Kim

The Cabinet by Un-su Kim, translated by Sean Lin Halbert

Publisher: Angry Robot Books

Publication date: 12 October 2021

Genre: Science fiction

Page count: 400 pages

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. This review is spoiler-free.

Cabinet 13 looks exactly like any normal filing cabinet. Except this cabinet is filled with files on the ‘symptomers’, people whose weird abilities and bizarre experiences might just mark the emergence of a new species.

But to Mr Kong, the harried office worker who spends his days looking after the cabinet, the symptomers are just a headache; from the woman whose doppelganger broke up with her boyfriend, to the man with a ginkgo tree growing from his fingertip. And then there’s that guy who won’t stop calling, asking to be turned into a cat…

A richly funny and fantastical novel about the strangeness at the heart of even the most ordinary lives, from one of South Korea’s most acclaimed novelists.

I’ve been looking for more translated fiction to read, and The Cabinet caught my eye. This was a really interesting read — a book that juxtaposes the strange and unusual sides of humanity with the mundane and familiar.

This book feels like two in one: one part of this book is a series of anecdotes from symptomers, people who display strange abilities or attributes that show the potential emergence in a new stage of humanity. I absolutely adored these strange stories — they were thought-provoking, unusual, and often quite playful and sweet in the way they were written. From a man who desperately wants to turn into a cat to win the love of a woman to people who fall into a deep and undisturbed sleep for months or years of their lives, I could read a whole book just made up of the symptomers’ tales. For me, the symptomers were the stars of this book.

The other half of the book tells the story of Deok-Geun, the bored office worker who stumbles upon this curious cabinet and is charged with all the admin, including fielding calls from symptomers. I really enjoyed the first half of his story — he is a very ordinary man who has had strange and unusual experiences himself — but it went in a very strange and violent direction toward the end that felt a little out of left field. To me, a Western reader, the book felt a little unbalanced, but that could honestly be a difference in storytelling that I am just unfamiliar with. Regardless, I really enjoyed The Cabinet, and at times had trouble putting it down.

The Cabinet is a book that is strange and unusual, but worth a read, especially if you’re interested in Korean fiction.

CW: quite graphic torture

Want to pick up a copy of The Cabinet for yourself? You can find it at the following sites (affiliate links):

Book Depository | Blackwells

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