Friday, October 9, 2020

Review: If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim

My biggest exposure to the Korean War was through M*A*S*H. I don't mean this to be funny or tongue in cheek but just to point out that Korea has been rather a blind spot in much of our learning here in the US. So I am always interested when I come across a book that will open up new worlds to me. Crystal Hana Kim's debut novel If You Leave Me, promised to show me a Korea during and post war that I had never seen before, through young characters whose normal lives have been upended and now must make the choice between love and security, survival and uncertainty, in a world not of their own making.

Haemi, her widowed mother, and her chronically ill younger brother fled their village home and live in a refugee camp on the coast. Life is hard, food is scarce, and medicine for her brother scarcer. One of the remaining joys of her life is to sneak out at night with her old friend Kyunghwan. She dresses as a boy and they get into mischief. But she is also getting older so not only does she face social disapproval for her antics, but she and Kyunghwan are becoming more and more aware of each other, their love for each other becoming more complicated. At the same time, Kyunghwan's wealthier cousin Jisoo decides to court the lovely Haemi, wanting to ensure that he has a family waiting for him when he returns from fighting in the civil war. Haemi has an impossible choice to make. In the end, she must forsake Kyunghwan and marry Jisoo for all he can offer her, her mother, and brother. But as the years go on, Haemi has to live with her choice and its consequences, as must her children and all those who love her.

Set from 1951-1967, the novel is told in chapters narrated by Haemi, Kyunghwan, Jisoo, Haemi's brother Hyunki, and eventually her daughter Solee, all in the first person. The reader sees first hand the bitterness, disappointment, and despair that pervade these characters in so many aspects of their lives. They've all been marked indelibly by the war and their circumstances: soul mates separated, education unobtainable, distant parents, and more. The price of war is far more than just physical. The novel is also broken into five parts between which are gaps in the story's timeline, allowing the characters to move into new situations without the intervening getting there. This does lessen the impact of Haemi's misery some but keeps the reader from having to feel as trapped and depressed in her role as mother and wife as Haemi herself does. She is the character around whom the other characters turn, even if she is not valued as she should be, and her unhappiness colors everything. Each of the characters is flawed and hard in ways that challenge the reader to work past, something that happens with varying degrees of success. Ultimately the story is a heartbreaking one, clear by the end that there was no other possible ending to the story, no other option when life extracts such a high price, requires such a sacrifice.

Thanks to LibraryThing Early Readers and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

1 comment:

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