Our Happy Time is not the obvious title for a novel in which a three-times attempted suicide goes reluctantly to visit a convicted murderer awaiting execution on death row. But strangely, as the relationship between the well-off former pop star and the prisoner from a poor and broken family gradually builds, the connection between them brings them the first happiness that they have known in a long time, possibly ever.
Yunsu, the death row inmate, has always suffered from violence and lived on the margins of society, while Yujeong is from a privileged background. But lurking behind her attempts at suicide is a trauma she suffered as a teenager in which she received no support from her family. It is the damaged background of both protagonists which enables them to form an initial subconscious connection and ultimately to begin to empathise with each other.
The well-paced narrative alternates between the Yunsu’s and Yujeong’s viewpoint. We read brief pages from Yunsu’s prison diary, which tell his life story and how he came to be on death row. As we get to know more of his background, we begin to feel more sympathy for him. In a way, this parallels the growing connection that Yujeong feels for him, though she does not know the truth about his crime until the very end.
The catalyst for the burgeoning but impossible friendship, even love, between the two characters, is the saint-like Sister Monica, Yujeong’s aunt and a Catholic nun whose vocation is visiting prisoners on death row. Monica alone tries to show understanding towards the prisoners, and alone of Yujeong’s family shows her an almost inexplicable amount of tolerance. And it is Monica who drags Yujeong along to death row as an alternative to therapy after her third suicide attempt.
The themes of the book are that no-one is wholly good, that no-one is wholly bad; and that violence and abuse engender more violence.
This second theme is established, in big flashing lights, right at the start:
“I am going to tell you a story. It is a story of murder. It is a story of a family that was only capable of destruction, where screaming and yelling and whippings and chaos and curses were their daily bread.”
It is then reinforced half way through the book, when the author engineers a trip to hospital in which Yujeong talks with her uncle, a child psychologist.
“Behind every person who’s committed an unimaginable crime is an adult who committed unimaginable violence against them as a child. All of them, as if it was plotted that way. Violence begets violence, and that violence begets even more violence.”
The uncle continues in this vein for a few pages, prompted to go into further detail by one-line questions from Yujeong and her aunt. This rather force-feeds you the science which provides the support for the argument that even the worst criminal might deserve some sympathy. While this chapter ensures you get the message, it feels rather like an enforced sociology lecture. By contrast, the drip-feeding of Yunsu’s story through his prison diary is a more effective and natural way of exposition.
But it is also this central chapter which introduces the concept of empathy – “When we see someone fall in the street or get injured, we think, That must have hurt.” Both Yunsu and Yujeong, never having been shown much if any love, are unable as we first meet them to imagine how others might feel. As they begin to understand, and love, each other, all that changes.
Our Happy Time won Gong Ji-young the 9th Special Media Award from Amnesty International. As an argument against the death penalty it is highly effective. Did it need the opening quote to set the scene?
Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
— Jesus, a condemned criminal
facing execution at the age of 33
Not really. But despite the minor quibbles concerning the over-eager delivery of the message, and also thanks to a seamless translation from Sora Kim-Russell, the book as a whole is an enjoyable and thought-provoking read.
Our Happy Time has been adapted as a movie, with an alternative western title of Maundy Thursday (Song Hae-sung, 2006)