The Naked Tree is an autobiographical novel by Park Wan-suh that was published in 1985. It was adapted to a graphic novel by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim, translated by Janet Hong, in 2023. Booklist has spotlighted the graphic novel in its best of 2023 line-up and it has popped up in other places as a noteworthy title from the past year.
In The Naked Tree, protagonist Lee Kyeonga recounts her memories from the time of the Korean War, when she lost her two brothers, worked in a postal exchange, and became infatuated with a married artist named Ok Huido. Ok Huido is based on the real artist Park Su-geun, who Gendry-Kim writes about in the afterword. The heavy subject matter does not make for a pleasant reading experience, because The Naked Tree transports the reader to a time and place of danger, fear, and uncertainty. Kyeonga’s mercurial attitude and mean-spiritedness, especially towards her elderly, grieving mother, made me completely dislike her until the end of the book. Kyeonga’s memory of her mother’s cutting words towards her after her brothers’ deaths somewhat justified her bitterness. Upon reflection, I understood that during wartime and periods of personal loss, people are simply not at their best and Kyeonga exemplifies that.
The artistic style is unique but sometimes awkward. The faces of the characters are frequently rough caricatures, but occasionally they are drawn with more care, such as Kyeonga’s mother on p. 133. I wished that the whole work was as lovely as that larger, full-body illustration. Other times, the perspective is peculiar, such as when Kyeonga is seen from above gazing up at the falling snow. Gendry-Kim’s talent really shines in depictions of the scenery. Beautiful images of a busy street, a cathedral, the postal exchange (PX) where Kyeonga works, and the trees and houses of Kyeonga’s neighborhood bring the setting to life. Her color reproductions of Park Se-geun’s paintings are marvelous.
While The Naked Tree sparked my curiosity about the painter Park Se-geun, the odd artistic style, unlikeable main character, and melancholy tone did not appeal to me. Nonetheless, the book has its merits. Readers who are interested in civilian memoirs during wartime, and the Korean War specifically, should pick up The Naked Tree.
The Naked Tree
By Keum Suk Gendry-Kim
Drawn & Quarterly, 2023
Related media: Book to Comic
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Creator Representation: Korean
Character Representation: Korean