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by Ji-Min Lee ; translated by Chi-Young Kim

Pub Date: Sept. 10th, 2019
ISBN: 978-0-06-293026-2
Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

A South Korean interpreter recalls her war-torn love life while on tour with Marilyn Monroe.

Lee, a screenwriter, has structured her short novel almost like an avant-garde film: The present action frames several flashbacks as the story follows an emotional, not a linear, arc. In 1954, the Korean War has ended and American forces occupy the South. For four morale-boosting days, Marilyn Monroe (the new Mrs. DiMaggio) is scheduled to visit Seoul and entertain the troops. First-person narrator Alice J. Kim (her nom de guerre), a translator and clerk on an American base, is tapped to serve as the star’s interpreter. From here it is rough chronological sailing; readers are advised to cling to the date headings of each chapter as flotation devices. A talented artist born to wealth, Alice (real name Ae-sun) refused an opportunity to escape. When Northern forces seized Seoul, she survived for a time by drawing propaganda posters for the enemy but eventually endured bombardment, then captivity in a Northern POW camp. Torn between Yo Min-hwan, a married lover, and Joseph Pines, an American agent, she alienated both, and her clumsy revenge had unintended, dire consequences. She seeks redemption by searching for Chong-nim, an orphaned girl she had helped during the evacuation of Hungnam. She is also contemplating suicide for reasons it takes the entire novel to establish. Acknowledging that the Korean War is still “The Forgotten War,” Lee, in this able translation by Kim, depicts several horrific episodes: neighborhoods in flames, hordes of refugees trying to escape the Communist invasion on overcrowded American ships, piles of corpses with those still living trapped beneath. The gritty truth is too often undermined by the banal love triangle, and Kim is perhaps overly fond of pronouncements like “A woman’s beauty is powerful enough to change her fate, though it becomes useless as she grows old.” The Marilyn frame story does pose revealing parallels between two outwardly privileged ingénues with inner scars.

An intermittently chaotic novel which manages to snatch poignancy from the jaws of cliché.