I just finished reading The Good Son, a crime thriller by You Jeong Jeong. A young man goes off his epilepsy medication and wakes up covered in blood one morning. The discovery of a body follows, but he can’t remember what happened. He retraces his steps, probing a shape-shifting memory that frequently recedes out of grasp, giving voice to an unreliable narrator. The suspense of this style keeps you turning pages, even though the narrative occasionally lags and dips into a swamp of agonizing detail that can be exhausting to wade through. It had good reviews but it was a bit of a chore to get through because the pacing was off.
The book I’d recommend from You Jeong Jeong is Seven Years of Darkness. Another crime thriller set in a remote village in South Korea whose central feature is a hydroelectric dam – a well utilized feature, I might add. The dam is as much a part of the story as any of the characters. This unique setting, along with good pacing, and a stellar cast of characters makes this murder mystery a treat.
Before that I was reading The Hole by Pyun Hye-young. A married couple get into a fight on their way to a getaway and end up in a car crash. The wife dies but the husband, paralyzed from the neck down, ends up under the care of the only family he’s got left – his mother-in-law. What could go wrong? It’s one of those stories that start with a lot of promise but taper off to a disappointing end. It does not unfold to its full potential.
Another that fell short of its initial promise was Almond by Won Pyung Sohn. It’s about a boy who knows no fear. His amygdalae – parts of the brain that affect how people feel emotions, especially fear and pleasure – are not fully grown yet and thus do not function as expected. One day, at six years old, he wanders off and witnesses a boy being bullied and badly beaten. He reports this to a nearby shop in a monotone which comes off as a prank and not a very good one. The shopkeeper dismisses him and the battered boy later dies from his injuries. Turns out – ding ding ding… it was the shopkeeper’s son! This happens early in the story and is not technically a spoiler. It’s one of few highlights in a book that attempts to probe the nature of people and emerges with few, if any, profound insights.
A book that succeeds exceedingly at this though is Everything Belongs to us by Yoojin Grace. Set in 1978 Seoul, the story follows three college students struggling with identity and class. Namin comes from a poor background but suffers stiff pride; a chin that is never lowered, and a back that bends for no one. Sunam comes from a comfortable home but pursues chaebol status with such unrestrained ambition that his soul is corrupted irredeemably. Jisun comes from obscene wealth but is still prone to envy. She is the kind of rich person that treats wealth with disdain and purports to understand and want to help the lower class, but only from the position of a savior reaching down.
Yoojin Grace writes her characters with such clarity and insight into personality and behavior that I can’t help but admire it. She finds the words to articulate the outer fringes of emotion and social awkwardness. In one of my favorite lines from the book, Namin says of Jisun, ‘Apologies were never difficult for her anyway, because she had no fear of diminishment.’ In another she says, ‘Jisun seemed to take for granted the fact that her life was always in flux while other people stayed put – preferably in the spot where she’d left them.’ Needless to say, this is my top recommendation and that completes my reading list of ten South Korean books in 2021.
Bonus books: Kim Jiyoung Born 1982 by Cho Nam Joo is a short, one-day read about a woman’s life in a patriarchal society balancing a career, marriage, motherhood, and mental health.
I’m smack in the middle of The Plotters by Un-su Kim, a murder-for-hire thriller featuring assassins and the plotters behind the assassinations in a world ominously known as the ‘meat market’. So far so good. Although, for all that talk about meat it sure takes long to get to the meat of the story. It has an extra-long set up but we’ll see how it goes. All in all, 2021 has been a good year for reading. I hope y’all are staying steady on your reading goals.
I already have a mile-high TBR pile for 2022 to get me through BBI politics and election mania. Yeah. We now what 2022 is going to be about. Crypto’s going to be big too so before we cross over, here’s my gift to you. Click here to dip your toe into the world of crypto trade. Sign up, start learning and get free crypto for every short video you watch.
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