When Min Jin Kym’s Gone came out, I mentally heaved a sigh of relief. Here’s one Korea-related book, I thought, among the dozens that will be published this year, that I don’t need to read. The story of how her £1 million Strad was stolen from under her nose at the Euston Pret-a-Manger made the national news at the time back in 2010. When it was recovered, there was a very interesting radio programme in which Kym was interviewed in detail and the story told in full. What could a book tell me about the incident that I didn’t already know?
As it happens, a lot.
Perhaps when coming to the story cold, you think in terms of the physical item itself. Here’s a million pound instrument whose value the thieves didn’t know – until the newspapers told them. Would it be damaged or destroyed? Would it ever see the light of day again? Would it ever be played again? Yes, the book answers these questions of course (and we knew the answers anyway) but more importantly focuses on the emotional and psychological impact of the loss, and in order to do that it brilliantly sets the scene by describing the deep relationship that a top violinist has with her instrument. And for Kym, that deep emotional relationship with the instrument was all part of her natural talent for music.
When reading the book, I skipped over the pages which described the theft itself. Rather like when watching a horror movie you look away or hide when the scariest bits are about to happen, I did not want to live through, even second hand, the minute by minute recounting of that awful moment.
Because Kym’s narrative is so spectacularly good at involving you emotionally. I was gripped by the book almost from the start, marvelling at the speed with which she mastered her chosen instrument. Grade IV after 12 weeks of lessons? It took me more like 5 years to get to that level on the piano. Marvelling at the age at which she could play a concerto from memory. And marvelling that there was a time when a headmaster of a private school could write to the Home Secretary, sort out a permanent residency visa for a foreign family on the basis of the talent of an eight-year-old girl and secure a government scholarship to support her tuition.
Also fascinating were the passages describing the differences between the traditional expectations and hierarchy of her extended family in Korea and the life she was actually living in England. But at the centre of it all is the relationship, the love affair, with her violin, and the description of her first encounter with the instrument brings a tear to the eye.
The theft occurred just as Kym was about to embark on a tour to promote a high-profile CD release for Sony Classics. The release took place, but the tour didn’t, and without her soulmate and life partner in her hands, her career went into limbo, giving her the opportunity at the end of the book to reflect back on her life as a child prodigy. Copies of her Sony recordings of the Brahms and Beethoven concertos are pretty much impossible to find, though you can still track down her earlier CD of Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole on the much smaller Claudio label, in which she is credited mysteriously as Min Jin, with no family name. Gramophone welcomed the recording “a fine début and a most enjoyable collection”, describing her playing as “delicious”, “seductive” and “dazzling”. Much more easy to find is a compilation of recordings from her student days, as well as two tracks from the Brahms CD, released on iTunes and elsewhere to be listened to alongside the book.
Both book and CD are highly recommended.