Review of Crystal Hana Kim’s novel If You Leave Me (USA: Harper Collins, August 7, 2018)
by YZ Chin
In these historic times, when relations between North and South Korea have to all appearances reached a breakthrough, and an official end to the Korean War seems more in sight than ever, reading Crystal Hana Kim’s If You Leave Me is a visceral reminder of what the war actually cost ordinary people who lived through it. While jokes about Nobel peace prizes are tossed about, it would do well to remember that the devastation of war extends far beyond its supposed end.
If You Leave Me is Kim’s first book; I first got to know Kim’s work through a Facebook group for debut authors, to which we both belong. Set in fifties and sixties Korea, the novel is a sweeping tale of life, love, and loss that traces the long shadow cast by war over families and individuals. The book opens on a budding love triangle between Haemi, Kyunghwan, and Jisoo, teenagers living in a refugee settlement after being forced away from their homes. A free spirit, Haemi seeks adventure in the form of illicit drinking sessions even during those difficult times, but she is bridled by her love for her sick brother Hyunki, who requires almost-constant care. Kyunghwan, her partner-in-crime, has feelings for her that he suppresses, going so far as to help his cousin Jisoo court Haemi instead. Thus begins an entanglement that will last the rest of their lives and beyond.
Kim imbues her debut novel with vivid descriptions that conjure up the characters’ surroundings. From a passage describing a river in Seoul:
Huts on stilts stood rickety and fragile like flock-lost birds along the river’s edge. Women in stained shirts poured buckets of laundry water from their windows. Others threw out their shit and urine and their vegetable ends, their children’s vomit. Everyone’s noses and mouths and asses leaked from sickness and no one could escape it.
In this indirect way, we are shown how lives are affected by the larger historical events playing out around them, even when the protagonists make decisions that seemingly come from nowhere except their hearts.
During the war, Jisoo and Kyunghwan both enlist, the former with a grim enthusiasm and the latter against his will, while Haemi works as a nurse’s assistant in a field hospital. Although their experiences in and near the army do not make up the bulk of the book, and most of the events are recounted only as summaries by the men, the various ways that war touches them form the cruxes of their lives. Jisoo is determined to marry Haemi before going off to war. In his mind, marriage fulfills some sense of normalcy, of how things are done, in the void left by the disappearance of his entire family. But after a permanent injury during military service, his idea of normalcy is torn from him. He grows increasingly intolerant of reality, especially when it comes to the human needs and failings of his loved ones as measured against his notion of what they ought to be. For Kyunghwan, enlisting in the army dashes his deepest hopes: going to college and being with Haemi. And it is during war, in the absence of the men, that Haemi comes into her own, gaining an independence that she will later sorely miss.
A central question asked by the novel is, what does thwarted desire do to a person? Historical events, class stratification, and gender roles all contribute to shape and restrict life choices. Beyond these large forces, however, the mystery of personality plays a large part in determining fate. In Jisoo, it is his failure to impose his wants on his environment that frustrate him. In Kyungwhan, it is inaction or a kind of aloofness. In Haemi, a hard pragmatism and a self-erasing sacrifice for family. To follow these three different arcs is to study the consequences of character. The turning points in the novel do not hinge upon acts of god, but rather impose difficult decisions on the three protagonists, their internal struggles and half-hidden motivations brought skillfully to life by Kim. The “what if?” echoing in the background of the novel becomes, for the reader, “what would I do?”
In this way, the novel’s depiction of desires thwarted and secrets withheld, plus the book’s many emotional climaxes, bring to mind the best Asian TV dramas. In the part of Asia I am from, these long-running dramas are serious affairs, followed by an enormous and dedicated viewership, often instigating heated debates about the morality of the characters’ actions, or the justness of their fates. Viewers learn and rehearse how to act during extraordinary circumstances in their own lives through such televised and streamed dramas. It is in this sense that If You Leave Me engages our attention and spurs our contemplation, showing how an unkind word, or a simple act omitted, can derail lives and unravel relationships. The care that Kim puts into fleshing out her characters, detail by detail, invites us to root for their triumphs and feel their regrets. At the same time, Kim is never moralistic in unspooling the connection between their fates and decisions, ill-formed or otherwise.
Though Kim’s prose is mostly precise and surefooted, a few details can seem jarring. For example, when Haemi and Jisoo converse with a US soldier, it is hard to tell which parts of the dialogue are in English, and which parts are Korean rendered in English for the reader. This jolting awareness of reading Korean rendered in English resurfaces later, when Kyunghwan receives a letter from Haemi and recognizes her handwriting by “the slight curl she [gives] the n in [his] name.”
But these are minor interruptions in an otherwise wholly engrossing read. Stakes are high for the protagonists, especially Haemi in her role as occasionally reluctant wife and mother. And what brings these stakes alive is Kim’s exquisite control over the rhythm of her prose that tightens and slackens to great effect. The passage where Haemi comes upon a grenade is amazingly evocative and entirely successful in its portrayal of Haemi’s impulsive streak, as well as the atmosphere of wartime living:
Clouds came out in streams and caught on the trees. Mist and a grenade and smoke and the whore and the sliding open of doors and the smell—artificial, burning, unfamiliar. It wasn’t a bomb at all.
“What’s wrong with you?”
Nothing. Nothing was wrong.
We were fine. We were undrowned, awake, not strung across the trees in pieces. We were fine.
The novel is narrated in the first person by different people, not just the three central characters, but also Haemi’s sick brother Hyunki, and her eldest daughter Solee. How different characters tell their stories is worth studying—whether they do so in full detail, or in summary and passing references. For example, Haemi records her time at the field hospital unflinchingly, with occasional gory details. Contrast this to Jisoo's and Kyunghwan’s wartime sections. Jisoo not only elides his time as an enlistee at first, but invents a story to cover up a truth that he views as embarrassing. Similarly, his later failure as a landowner is heavily implied but never admitted fully by Jisoo himself, who instead hurries over his enterprise’s bitter end with passive, self-exculpatory phrases:
Over the years, half the fields had been broken off, peddled to tenants by government men who knew nothing about farming.... And farther on, the property I should have owned in Seoul, which had been taken from beneath my feet.
Always disappointed by life, Jisoo invents alternate versions of reality and represses events he cannot stomach. It is later, in Haemi’s account, that we see just how dire Jisoo’s situation is, when a creditor comes to the couple’s home and touches Haemi against her will, right in front of Jisoo, while declaring: “He [Jisoo] owes me.”
Kyunghwan, too, summarizes his activity in the army without Haemi’s urgent attention and tight lens. And elsewhere, he seems to float through life, holding himself at a distance, never participating fully. For instance, we never get his reaction to failing his college entrance exams; the defeat is presented as a fact and abruptly dropped as a plot point. He seems doomed to be waiting always, hence the choppiness in his narratives, as he is buoyed from point to point in an arc not within his control. His interactions with the opposite sex, too, are often conveyed in a curt fashion, sometimes without resolution (his sustained flirtation with under-aged Aejung, who simply disappears from the narrative), and sometimes sketched in just a few sentences (his interactions with Sunmi). Women come, women go, and so do jobs. He talks about them—women and jobs—lightly, at times almost dismissively, as if his real life is happening elsewhere.
Unlike the men, Haemi details her heartbreak and her depressive episodes to great effect. She is ultimately the one who moves the action forward when she confronts her unhappiness head-on and writes it down on paper in the form of a letter to Kyunghwan. Haemi is the clear-eyed one who sees life as it is in the present, and who responds with the whole of her uninhibited emotional being to her very limits.
Many contemporary novels use multiple first-person accounts to carry forward the overall story arc, but If You Leave Me stands out in the success of its deployment of this popular device. The historical events, too, are not mere backdrop or circumstances in the characters’ lives, but fundamentally shape and inform individual agencies and community ties. The end result is a novel that irresistibly calls for our involvement.
YZ Chin is the author of the fiction collection Though I Get Home (Feminist Press, 2018), premier winner of the Louise Meriwether First Book Prize. Born and raised in Taiping, Malaysia, she now lives in New York. She works by day as a software engineer, and writes by night.