I’ll Be Right There, by Kung-Sook Shin.
I’ll Be Right There, by Kung-Sook Shin. Other Press (2014), Paperback, 336 pages.
A haunting book by an award-winning Korean woman about young people being available to each other and the painful guilt of having failed to be there when needed.
The best summary of this excellent book is perhaps that of its author in an afterword for her novel.
I’ll be Right There is a story of young people living in tragic times. It is also the story of people who find themselves separated, despite their love for each other, because they carry wounds too deep to overcome, and who struggle to come back together.
The novel is set in turmoil of dictatorship and resistance in Korea during the 1980s, but Kung-Sook deliberately focuses on seeing her characters not as unique but universal. “No matter how rough the world becomes, there will always be teachers and students learning from each other, and …there will always be earnest and heartfelt first loves and friendships born.” Her book honors these moments because “We may be protagonists of tragedy, but we are also the heroes of our most beautiful and most thrilling experiences.”
Central to the novel are the memories of Yung Joon as she looks back on a time eight years earlier when she was attending college in Seoul. Alone and devastated by her mother’s death, she spent, her time exploring the city and visiting its historical palaces and shrines.
Walking made me think more and focus on the world around me. Moving forward putting one foot in front of the other, reminded me of reading a book. I came across wooded paths and narrow market alleys where people who were strangers to me shared conversations, asked one another for help, and called out to each other.
She meets a young man and woman who had grown up together. The three of them become fast friends despite the emotional burdens each carries.
We fixated on silly, pointless things sometime to fight off our anxiety and loneliness.
A professor inspires them with his stories and a childhood friend of Yoon’s joins them before his army service begins. All of the characters carry their own scars from the past, but for a time they find joy in each other’s company. Yoon and Myungsuh form bond as a couple, but pain and uncertainty continue to intrude on their lives.
The prose in this book has a crisp, bell-like clarity, and yet we are often left unsure of what is happening or why. A sense of urgency drives the novel as we only slowly discover the stories behind character’s actions. Death and loss are present, but joy is also present sustaining the characters as they embrace it and later in their memories. Repeated phrases and sentiments punctuate the story; “Let’s always remember this day” and “I’ll be right there.”
Kung-Sook Shin is a very talented writer who continues to live and write in Korea. She has published seventeen novels in Korean and has a reputation as a leading author there. Two years ago, her novel Please Look After Mom, was published in English and was awarded literary prizes. (See my review.) I’ll Be Right There was written in Korean and translated into English by Sora Kim-Russell.
I highly recommend this novel to readers looking for something beyond a typical “coming of age” story or romance. A book about holding on to joy in the face or pain and reaching out to others.