In this debut novel, a love triangle is complicated by temperament, circumstance, and history: Korea, 1951-1967.
We meet Haemi Lee at 16, in a refugee camp. The war between North and South has forced what is left of her family—her mother and her invalid younger brother—from their village. In her boredom, she's begun going out at night with a boy named Kyunghwan—they ride a bicycle into town and find ways to drink makgeolli and have some fun. The problem is that by day, she's being courted by this boy's wealthier, orphaned cousin, Jisoo. Jisoo wants to marry Haemi before he enlists, mainly so that he can have the sense that there's a family waiting for him at home when he returns. Haemi's decision plays out over the next 16 years, a time of great upheaval in the lives of all Koreans. The perspective on the action is split among five first-person narrators—the three already mentioned, Haemi's younger brother, and one of her daughters—and leaps over years at a time. This both expands the scope of the story and muffles its emotional power. Most interesting is the character of Haemi, who knows something is wrong with her, something that manifests as irritability, dissatisfaction, impulsivity, and an inability to connect deeply with those closest to her. In a world without diagnoses, therapists, or antidepressants, she will face a challenge even greater than the romantic one—becoming a mother. The character of Haemi is fascinating, her predicament a kind of Korean Virginia Woolf situation.
Though this bulky saga is not as compelling as it could be, Kim's portrayal of the effects of mental illness on a family at a psychologically naïve time is perceptive and moving.