Review: JM Lee – The Boy who Escaped Paradise

The Boy who Escaped ParadiseThe Boy Who Escaped Paradise
J.M. Lee, translated by Chi Young Kim
Pegasus, 2016, 288pp
Originally published as 천국의 소년, Seoul, 2013.
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A fifty-year-old North Korean is found shot to death in a flat in Queens, New York; beside him is a wounded man, the presumed killer. On the floor around the bodies are mysterious numbers and pictures scrawled in blood. So, like A Good Son, we start with the death, and the rest of the book is about whether the prime suspect committed the act, and if so, why.

The central character in the book is the presumed murderer, a North Korean with Aspergers, a talented mathematician. What follows is the story of how he came to be in Queens with the murder victim, a story that emerges over several days of interrogation by the US authorities.

The story is straightforward, and comes in convenient bite-sized chunks. The man’s childhood in North Korea; his time in a prison camp; his escape from North Korea and journey, via various stopping points in China, Macao, Mexico and South Korea, that ultimately lands him in New York. He is driven by the desire to be reunited with a sweetheart he met in the North Korean prison camp, who seems, elusively, always to be one step ahead in her separate flight and attempt to escape her past.

Each stop along the way can almost be read as a stand-alone short story, in which the central character, always at the bottom of the economic pile, manages to win some form of security by the use of his astonishing numerical skills, only to lose that security as the narrative sweeps him on to the next stop on his pursuit of the elusive girl.

The narrative is fast-paced and exciting; JM Lee has done his homework in researching the background to his story (he acknowledges books such as Aquariums of Pyongyang as sources); and overall this is a great piece of escapism. Those who are not fond of sums may find the mathematical passages tiresome. For me, I found the poetry in Lee’s The Investigation a similar barrier to enjoyment, but here the maths simply adds to the fun of the fast-paced story.

Having just finished The Plotters, and When Adam Opens His Eyes, I’m lucky to have experienced three fun books in a row. This one’s a great poolside read: nothing to challenge the brain but plenty to entertain.

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