I spent many hours in a car recently, driving from the SF Bay Area to San Diego. And when I wasn’t doing my share of driving (boring brown, brown, brown and endlessly straight roads – occasionally interrupted by a dust cloud or two), I read. Ok sometimes I stared out the window and browsed the Internet. I had filled my Kindle and Nexus with e-books and e-magazines from the digital library. In the end I didn’t even open any of the magazines, but I concentrated on reading two books. I’ll Be Right There by Shin Kyung-Sook and Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. Two very different books. Set in opposite sides of the world. One translated from the Korean, the other written in English. They provided a good balance though. For I’ll Be Right There is a poignant, affecting read that stole a bit of my heart every time I turned away from it. And Bernadette was a precious, light, fun read in between, unforgettable in its own way.
While I enjoyed the previous book of hers that I read, Please Look After Mother, I fell for I’ll Be Right There. And to emphasize how much I loved this book, I read it and read it and read it on the Overdrive app on my Nexus, screen glare, inability to highlight passages, bumpy ride in cars, kids making noise in the second row and all. It was that absorbing.
I’ll chicken out and give you the book synopsis from Goodreads:
Set in 1980s South Korea amid the tremors of political revolution, I’ll Be Right There follows Jung Yoon, a highly literate, twenty-something woman, as she recounts her tragic personal history as well as those of her three intimate college friends. When Yoon receives a distressing phone call from her ex-boyfriend after eight years of separation, memories of a tumultuous youth begin to resurface, forcing her to re-live the most intense period of her life. With profound intellectual and emotional insight, she revisits the death of her beloved mother, the strong bond with her now-dying former college professor, the excitement of her first love, and the friendships forged out of a shared sense of isolation and grief.
Yoon’s formative experiences, which highlight both the fragility and force of personal connection in an era of absolute uncertainty, become immediately palpable. Shin makes the foreign and esoteric utterly familiar: her use of European literature as an interpreter of emotion and experience bridges any gaps between East and West. Love, friendship, and solitude are the same everywhere, as this book makes poignantly clear.
Then again, I’m not sure if that’s the best way of introducing this book. Yes, there is political upheaval and student protests (South Korea had a difficult time in the 1980s), there is pain, both physical and emotional, loved ones lost, a repressive regime, that kind of thing. But there is friendship and love and the sweetest of devotion. And there is South Korea, etched out in walks taken by Jung Yoon:
“It was after dark when he guided us to a market street. There, people who slept by day and worked at night were rushing about. The market stalls stood shoulder to shoulder, divided by building and block, and I could not tell one place from another. The market was so dense with stalls that I could never have memorized all of their names. Dongdaemun Market, Gwangjang Market to the north, a wholesale market that sold only shoes, Dongdaemun Jonghap Market… The market stalls, all with ‘Dongdaemun’ in their names, looked like a maze, but Nak Sujang guided us forth easily like an explorer.”
And by the meals she enjoys with her friends and cousin:
“Rice, seaweed soup, grilled dried corvina, steamed egg, toasted dried laver, seasoned spinach, mung bean sprouts, and radish – all of the things he liked. The three of us ate together sometimes.”
This next bit might be a bit of a spoiler if you are interested in reading this book. It was something that hit me hard but don’t worry, I won’t give much detail.
Towards the end of the book, it comes to light that one of the characters was dealing with anorexia. It’s something that made me sit up and swear silently to myself. Just a few days earlier, on the day we left for our roadtrip, I woke to a message from my friend in Singapore saying that she had found out that someone we both knew had passed away from complications due to anorexia. I hadn’t heard her name in years but it was still a shock to learn of her death. While we weren’t close, she was someone I saw often at school, and it made me sad to think of how I hadn’t kept in touch with her since.
Perhaps those circumstances made this novel more meaningful to me.
Or perhaps it was Shin’s setting of a tumultuous time in South Korea, a time that’s not often written about, at least in the English language, is so very important and unique. It is, as Shin explains in an interview with The Guardian, a story about the missing:
“For my generation it seemed everyday – people picked up at demonstrations, detained, tortured, ‘disappeared’. Young men who led rallies died mysteriously during military service. My novel is a homage to those people.”
Or perhaps it was just good writing – the characters Shin brings to life, their lives and loves, their pain and suffering.
Kyung-sook Shin was born in 1963 and is part of the ‘386 generation’, a cohort of young Koreans who were particularly politically active in the democracy movement of the 1980s. Despite her political involvement, however, her works look inwards at her characters’ psychological wounds and difficulty in reconciling themselves to their present and future. Her novel Please Look After Mother has sold over two million copies in Korea and won the Man Asian Literary Prize, and is available in translation in English. The novel struck a chord in Korea; the story of a rural woman becoming lost in Seoul while attempting to visit her children in the city contains profound echoes of the anxiety in Korea over the recent shift from the traditional to the modern. Her other novels include I’ll be Right There, A Lone Room, The Strawberry Field, and Lee Jin. In 2011, Kyung-sook Shin taught at Columbia University in New York as a visiting scholar.
Works in translation
I’ll Be Right There (Other Press, 2014)
The Place Where the Harmonium Once Was Asia Publishers, 2012
Please Look After Mom (Vintage; Reprint edition, 2012)
A Lone Room
The Strawberry Field
A Lone Room: Published in Germany by Pendragon in 2001; in Japan by Shuei-sha in 2005; in China by China People’s Literature Press in 2006; in France by Philippe Picquier in 2008, recipient of the 2009 Prix de l’Inaperu; an excerpt published in the US in The Literary Review in 2007, recipient of the 2007 PEN Translation Fund Grant from PEN American Center;
The Sound of Bells: Published in China by Hwasung Press in 2004
The Strawberry Field: Published in China by Hwasung Press in 2005
Yi Jin: Published in France by Philippe Picquier in 2010