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.