I’ll be Right There is a quiet novel that builds crescendo until it produces a big bang.
In its prologue, we are immediately pulled into a complex relationship between friends, out of contact since their college years almost a decade prior but reunited through a connection to their Professor, an old poet named Yoon who is on his death bed when we first hear of him. The 16-page introduction asserts, but in barely-audible whispers, that this will be a book about loss – how people react to news that the inevitable is about to happen, and how they are changed by events that aren’t unexpected but that will erode even the soil that they collect and store in their pockets.
Individual characteristics are murky, as though obscured by a dense fog that beckons you to peer under its shroud and find the secrets these sad young people keep close – Yoon Miru whose broken body conceals a story of abuse whether self-inflicted or tragic, Myungsuh, her protector who carries a camera to record other people’s decisions while he lingers behind making his own, and Jung Yoon, who is still reeling from the sacrificial death of her mother and whose life is measured by visits to her grave. There is another young man in the shadows – a childhood friend named Dahn, who tries to forge a new bond with Jung Yoon but without making the ultimate sacrifice, he fails to provide the morbid fascination she craves and that a relationship with these other two promise.
The novel capitalizes on the Korean naming tradition where the family name is given first. Here, the author presents two depressed young women who share a name so one’s first name is the other’s surname and over the course of the novel, we watch them morph into the same person, and their combined image is reflected in the dying teacher, also called Yoon. The notebook where we are first introduced to the thoughts of one of the boys, later becomes a shared writing space where they take turns penning sentences to be finished by another, linking this odd group with incestuous intimacy.
At several points during the narrative, I wondered why the story takes such a circuitous course – whether there wasn’t a more concise way to tell this tale, and if a more abbreviated version wouldn’t have been more interesting but Shin’s telling meanders like the endless river she mentions at various points, with the characters alternating between carrying and being carried, like the story of Saint Christopher she repeats like an echo undulating through the Professor’s poetry. Various modes of storytelling are used – journal entries, letters, poems, quotes, stories, reflections and yet there is much the author also keeps from us at will, like the reason for each of the protests that encapsulate the characters who sacrifice themselves for a greater good that is never explained so the reader can feel the rage that consumes these missive young people.
The central theme of the novel then is suffering – the tragic experiences endured by the characters and their helplessness as they watch each other succumb to frustration and pain, yet even in its final pages, the the exact source of the violence that so affects them, is not explicitly named so we feel pain without being able to put a finger on its source, to identify or to heal.
My Rating: 3 stars
2 things I liked about I’ll be Right There
- I enjoyed the literary references, especially quotes from Emily Dickinson and poetry from Rilke
- The author framed Korean historical events with the character’s personal experiences and captured the unpredictability of the times in their fleeting relationships and personalities
2 things I didn’t like and the reason I took 2 stars away:
- several pages felt redundant as the split narrative didn’t always advance the story
- the relationship that developed between the characters seemed unlikely, given their histories
I’ll be Right There was first published in South Korea in 2010 and translated to English in 2013 by Sora Kim-Russel, and it is my introduction to the author Kyung-Sook Shin, a Korean author with a resume and award-list a mile long. Two more of her recently-translated novels are also on my list of To-Be-Read-Soon. Look out for my upcoming reviews of The Court Dancer, a historical fictional story about a young Korean entertainer who marries into the French aristocracy and changes her native Korea, as well as The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness about a young woman’s desire to become an author, whatever the sacrifice necessary.
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