Book review: Shin Kyung-sook — I’ll be right there

by Philip Gowman on 24 August, 2015

in Book Reviews, Korean literature in translation

Shin Kyung-sook: I'll be right thereShin Kyung-sook: I’ll Be Right There
Translated by Sora Kim-Russell
Other Press, New York, 2014, 325pp
Originally published as 어디선가 나를 찾는 전화벨이 울리고, Somewhere A Phone Is Ringing For Me, 2010

There are people who liked Shin Kyung-sook’s most famous work – Please Look After Mother – and those that didn’t. In the latter camp is Tony Malone and Charles Montgomery. And those in that camp seem to like I’ll Be Right There. Now, call me a sentimental old softie (and yes, like many others I do have feelings of guilt about mother) but I really rather liked PLAM. I came to IBRT with an open mind, hoping that it would be even better than PLAM, and I really struggled with it.

I took it on holiday with me last year, read the first fifty pages or so, got bored and gave up. I started again a couple of weeks later and got even less far before thinking this was not a book for me. And now, one year on, I have picked it up again, thinking I might gatecrash a book club that is discussing it later this month. And was it third time lucky?

Well, at least this time I finished the thing, but I didn’t particularly enjoy it. Once again I struggled with the opening chapter. The regretful current-day voice looking back with melancholy at a past she wishes could have been different… how many movies have started with such a technique before launching into a full-blown flashback which lasts most of the rest of the film? The technique is to throw in a few tantalising snippets, a couple of hooks to reel us in, to make us want to read on. But here’s what we get on page 3:

Time is always bearing down on us; … had I understood in my youth that we can never relive the same moment twice, things might have turned out differently. Had I understood that, I would never have said goodbye to someone, and someone else might still be alive.

Well, having got to the end, I still don’t know which “someones” she’s talking about – the body count among her close friends is greater than one (the novel is, after all, set in the tumultuous world of student protest in 1980s Korea, in which protestors died either by their own hand – think Jeon Tae-il in 1970 – or at the hands of an out-of-control police state); and her relationships with her friends, though intense, were such that she often didn’t seem to say goodbye to them. Anyway, if the vagueness in that second sentence quoted above was meant to make me want to read on, it didn’t: it made me think I was being manipulated.

The vagueness of the “someones” didn’t end there. Characters from the narrator’s past are thrown at us; we know that one of them is dead, but we do not know if the dead person is one and the same as any of the other characters she introduces to us: Dahn, her childhood friend; a boy with whom she walked around an island off Incheon, who may or may not be one and the same as a youth with whom she was close at university. The opening panorama has a lack of focus, presumably reflecting an unexplained emotional turmoil in the current-day mind of the narrator.

We eventually get to the main part of the story – Jung Yoon’s life as a student in Seoul, and things start moving a bit more smoothly. But, but, but… Question: do (or did) lecturers really expect a student to volunteer for unpaid typing services, for a manuscript which seems to have taken several hours to complete? That was one minor thing that niggled at me, though it was the smallest of my worries. Why was it that Yoon didn’t recognise Myungsuh, when he seemed to recognise her – were we in some sort of weird Winter Sonata world? Why does a detailed description of two friends going to a public bath together morph into a generic description of their weekly rituals of ablution? When a cat’s eyes are described as being “as blue as the sky at dawn”, what precise shade of orangey-pinky-blue is that?

If all these questions seem superficial, and imply that I might not have been reading the text closely enough, that may be the case. I really lost concentration because not enough was happening. Too much description of shaking the snow from the branches of trees, or of collecting spring rainwater to irrigate the garden, and not enough description of what A saw in B that made them fall in love in the first place.

As I battled on through the book, the main thought to loom large in my mind was this: there better be a darn good ending to make all this maundering worthwhile. But there wasn’t, though I must say that the cat was pretty indestructible, surviving from Jung Yoon’s student days till a time when she can say “I can tell I am getting old.” In the final pages we get some recapitulation of the messages given in the opening chapter: treasure your friendships and your loved ones when you are young, because you can’t turn back the clock. And that’s a fair enough, but not enough for me to recommend someone to read this book.

And I’ve decided I won’t try to gatecrash that book club session after all.


{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Michael Duffy August 24, 2015 at 6:45 am

“Question: do (or did) lecturers really expect a student to volunteer for unpaid typing services, for a manuscript which seems to have taken several hours to complete?”
I haven’t read the novel, but based on my experience working in a university English department, I think if a student worked as a teaching assistant (조교), that would have been quite normal. It wouldn’t be surprising if a lecturer (교수, or professor in Korea) made this kind of demand to a student, even one not formally hired as a TA.

Philip Gowman August 24, 2015 at 7:53 am

Thanks for the info Michael. In this case it was just a regular student who was doing the unpaid extra work.

alua August 24, 2015 at 8:11 am

“Question: do (or did) lecturers really expect a student to volunteer for unpaid typing services, for a manuscript which seems to have taken several hours to complete?”

This could even happen here…. unpaid marking, for example, isn’t heard of. I’ve always been paid (miserly) for marking, but easily spent twice as much time on the marking than what they assumed you would need. But all do this – graduate students are a desperate bunch for putting things on our CVs.

Tony August 26, 2015 at 10:23 am

Ha – I’m sticking to my guns here. I loved this one and hated the dreaded Mother book 😉

Philip Gowman August 26, 2015 at 8:49 pm

I wondered whether I was in a minority of one here, but no. I compared notes with a well-read Korean friend of mine, and to paraphrase what she said: A Single Room is great, PLAM is good, while IBRT is a dull re-hash of some short stories which are themselves pretty sluggish.

I wonder how the book club discussion went this evening… It’s sad that despite these sessions being a monthly event frequented by more than one blogger I’ve never seen any write-ups of them. I never have time to go myself but it would be interesting to know the types of things discussed.

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