book review: I’ll Be Right There by Kyung-Sook Shin

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I’LL BE RIGHT THERE by Kyung-Sook Shin
★★☆☆☆
Other Press, 2014 (originally published in 2010)

 

I feel like this is the ghost of the book it’s trying to be. Resonance and pathos are within its grasp but it isn’t quite able to achieve either. I’ll Be Right There follows Jung Yoon, a young woman looking back on the period of her life when she was a university student in 1980s South Korea, where she had close friend group that was eventually torn apart by tragic circumstances. It seems a bit callous to say that I ultimately didn’t care about these characters and the horrors they endured, but I guess that’s what it does come down to. Despite a premise that promises heartbreak and emotional turbulence, Kyung-Sook Shin goes to pains to ensure that the reader remain as apathetic about her characters as possible.

My main frustration with I’ll Be Right There is down to the fact that so much of this narrative happens off-screen. A secondary character will die, and rather than seeing it happen, or even seeing Yoon’s reaction to hearing the news, we’ll find out that six months have gone by since the last chapter and Yoon has been processing her grief all that time. It’s time the reader doesn’t get to spend with her, and the story suffers for it. It’s just impossible to get inside this character’s head, which is especially perplexing given the first-person narration. A tragic backstory will be revealed, and Yoon will flinch or shriek or cry as she hears the story told, but we’re just calmly informed that she does these things. She’ll develop an obsession with another student, and tell the reader that she’s interested in this person, but it’s almost impossible to discern why. She’ll feel an inexplicable attachment to her professor (who’s apparently meant to be at the center of this story in a mentor role, but who has maybe three scenes in the entire book and isn’t able to anchor the narrative in the way he’s meant to) and this is just never expounded upon.

And admittedly there’s something to be said about poignancy that’s achieved through unsentimental narration – Human Acts comes to mind – but interestingly, I don’t think that was the author’s intention here. This book is undeniably steeped in melodrama, or it tries to be, but the result is just hollow. Kyung-Sook Shin commits the cardinal sin of assuming the reader’s investment in her characters without earning it. It’s like all the elements are there to tell a beautiful and moving story about young people growing up against a backdrop of sociopolitical unrest, but there just isn’t enough humanity in this story to make it convincing or affecting. I know Kyung-Sook Shin is a prominent writer in South Korea and I really want to love her work, so maybe I’ll give it another try, but I’ll Be Right There was a pretty big disappointment.

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34 thoughts on “book review: I’ll Be Right There by Kyung-Sook Shin

  1. I think the difference between “unsentimental” and “unengaging” is totally key here. You’re right – there are plenty of books that tell a story in an unadorned way, but still manage to get us to care.

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    • Oh absolutely. It just had me questioning whether unsentimental was the author’s (failed) intention with this book, but I don’t think it was. I think it aimed for poignancy but relied too much on horrific backstories to be like ‘this sure is sad, right???’

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      • I wonder if this has something to do with cultural expectations surrounding storytelling? I’ve read books translated from Chinese and Japanese recently and this seems to happen with them at a much higher rate.

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      • I think that’s definitely a possibility. I did find myself wondering if something had gotten lost in translation since so many of my issues with the book were ultimately down to the tone, and I wondered if I’d have a different experience with it if I could read it in Korean… and tonally it actually reminded me a LOT of Norwegian Wood, so maybe there’s something to be said for East Asian coming of age dramas having a certain detached quality.

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      • I’ve always found books translated from Asian languages to be noticeably linguistically stiff… it’s almost certainly to do with the fact that I’m not accustomed to it, but it does put me off, I’m ashamed to say.

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      • Interestingly I’ve had overwhelmingly good experiences with East Asian fiction, and I generally recognize that stiffness as well but it doesn’t usually put me off. I think in this case it was because it extended from the prose style to the character work, which I found more difficult to forgive when the whole thing kind of hinged on the reader’s emotional investment in the characters.

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    • YES I did 😦 I was so sure I was going to love this book I’d been saving it for years to read at the right moment. I mean, it’s essentially a cross between Human Acts and The Secret History and that is so up my alley it’s not even funny. I just felt so profoundly bored and detached from everyone.

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      • I am really enjoying Milkman, though it’s a lot denser than I was expecting and taking me a while to get through. But, it’s quite brilliant. Though I’m also forcing myself through the audiobook of Lab Girl, which I could not care less about, unfortunately.

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      • I read a really comprehensive review of Milkman and decided that it is really not a book for me. But I am very much looking forward to your review. I’ve heard mixed things about Lab Girl, so I am not that suprised that you are not enjoying it that much. But at least the audio should be quick?
        PS: I feel the need to warn you about Everything Under. It is brilliant but it does that thing with the missing quotation marks. (I do think it makes sense for what it’s worth)

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      • I was specifically going to tell you not to read Milkman so I’m glad you weren’t planning on it. There is just NO plot and it’s basically this girl rambling in paragraphs that go on for pages and I think it would be a bit much even for me if it weren’t so quintessentially Irish in a way that I find really endearing. And I love reading books about the Troubles so if it were set in a time period I didn’t care about I imagine it would be maddening.

        I finished Lab Girl finally! I posted my mini review on Goodreads. Absolutely not the book for me. I just hate biology so much. I thought there’d be more of a human interest angle but it really was just about trees.

        And I’m fine with the missing quotation marks as long as it makes narrative sense and doesn’t feel like an arbitrary stylistic decision. I do find it funny just how many books with no quotation marks I’ve read this year alone. I should count but I don’t think I’ll remember them all!

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      • I hated science SO MUCH in school. It wasn’t a requirement to take a science class my senior year of high school, and even though everyone recommended you do it anyway because colleges like to see 4 years of science, I couldn’t make myself suffer any longer. That’s probably why I got rejected from some of the more prestigious colleges I applied to but honestly it was 100% worth it.

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      • I had no choice in the matter. I needed to pick one of either biology, chemistry or physics. So I went with biology and had one of my best friends explain everything to me like you would to a 5-year-old. (she is currently doing her PhD in medical biology which is freaking me how. How can anyone be so clever?)

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      • 9th grade was geology (probably the lesser of the three evils), 10th grade was biology (which I loathed), and 11th grade was chemistry (my NEMESIS), so for my final year I chose freedom instead of physics. I had to do the exact same thing with a friend in my chemistry class. It’s incredible how stupid that class made me feel. He’s now working on a nursing degree which seems a bit more impressive than being opinionated about books which is all I’ve got going for me, but what can you do.

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      • After chemistry and physics kicked my butt in 10th grade, I figured biology would be my best choice. And then we did a year and a half of bio-chemistry. By the time we started on evolution I was just so glad to at least understand somewhat what is going on for a change.

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      • Chemistry AND physics in the same year??? That’s just cruel. That is all way too much science. In college I had to take one lab science class for a requirement so I took geology aka ‘rocks for jocks’ because it seemed easiest. Our lab experiments were just like, scraping rocks against each other. I could be so lazy with certain parts of my education.

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      • Math is much more tolerable to me. I don’t love it but at least I’ve always had a bit of an aptitude for it. I don’t enjoy feeling unintelligent so I admittedly resent the sciences for this.

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  2. I’m less than 100 pages in, so there’s definitely time to win me over, but I’m having the same issue with her The Court Dancer! There just hasn’t been enough character work done to make me care about anyone and the style is very detached so I’m having a hard time getting into it.

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    • Honestly all of my Korean lit recommendations are super basic (I adore Han Kang) but I’ll check that out for other recommendations! I’m hoping to read some more Korean lit by the end of the year.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ok great! There’s a lot of new Koreanlit coming out this year and so updating the reddit as they cone along.

        Also check my blog (check my username) for updates and previews too!

        Did you like Han Kang’s white book? Or you just read The Vegetarian?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Will do!

        I’ve read all of her books translated into English, my favorite is actually Human Acts but The Vegetarian is a close second. I did really enjoy The White Book as well, but it was more quietly haunting than her other two which I just found so viscerally affecting.

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