A delightful premise and a visual treat, I Am the Subway by Kim Hyo-eun tells us a story from the unusual perspective of a subway train. Across the course of an average weekday, we join the train as it runs in one big ring around the city of Seoul (think the Circle Line but reliable!) As the train rattles on, it shares stories of the passengers it welcomes aboard every day, giving us a glimpse into the everyday lives of the inhabitants of this great Korean metropolis.
We begin just before daylight, as the metro system comes to life. Hyo-eun employs a lovely rhythmic verse that suggests the motion of a train but it’s her beautiful watercolour illustrations that elevate this book to something very special, and we join the brightly lit empty train as it zooms across the title pages, through dark tunnels to its very first stop at Hapjeong station.
Here we meet regular commuter, Mr Wanju, perpetually flustered and running late. Delayed by the antics of his little daughter, he’s already planning to be one of the first out of the office at the end of the working day, ‘to run home and see her smile.’
Each station brings new passengers and old favourites. Have sympathy for struggling schoolgirl, Na-yoon, laden with books and gloomily travelling to extra-tuition classes, her feelings ‘as heavy as her bag.’ Featuring family groups, a travelling peddler, and an unemployed young man with an uncertain future, my personal highlight is Mr Jae-sung, the shoe mender. Who among us hasn’t indulged in a spot of shoe-gazing on the underground? Mr Jae-sung ponders office shoes and battered sneakers alike.
‘He thinks he can guess the paths they might have walked.’
Later, as the train emerges from a tunnel into the late afternoon, the journey is accompanied by every passenger’s bugbear, ‘the sour smell of sweat on the long way home.’
A quirky tribute to the shared humanity of urban travel.
I Am the Subway by Kim Hyo-eun is published by Scribble, 52 pages.