Seo Miae’s The Only Child is the latest thriller to come out of Korea, following on the heels of Jeong You-jeong’s Good Son and Kim Un-su’s The Plotters. Seo debuted in 1994 with the short story 30 Ways to Kill Your Husband and won the GrandPrize for Korean detective fiction with the Dolls Garden. She is also known for her screenplays, having penned two out of the four TV movies in the Temptation of Eve series, the Detective Q TV series and also the gentle animation My Beautiful Girl, Mari.
The Only Child, her first novel to be translated into English, centres on criminal psychologist Seonkyeong, who unexpectedly gets invited by a notorious serial killer to conduct a series of interviews with him on death row. She has no idea why she has been chosen, when many others have sought to make their name by trying to find out the secret of why he committed so many murders, and whether there were any more that the police didn’t know about.
At precisely the time she has her first interview with the manipulative killer, her husband brings home his daughter from a previous marriage: her mother died some time ago, since when she has lived with her grandparents, who have just died in a suspicious house fire. What if any are the hidden connections between the serial killer Yi, the psychologist Seonkyeong, and the stepdaughter whose behaviour seems anything but normal. And certainly there are some parallels that we learn as the backstory of killer and daughter gradually unfold: abusive mothers.
While most of the time we see the story through Seonkyeong’s eyes, occasionally we get a contrasting viewpoint from the killer and the stepdaughter Nayoung, particularly in the latter case teasing the reader into wondering whose viewpoint is the authentic one. Similarly, a deliberate reference to the thriller Silence of the Lambs makes one wonder whether certain incidents were likely to be repeated (an episode with the prisoner in an ambulance in particular had me wondering whether we were going to get a fright along the lines of the scene in the film).
The story hums along at a fair pace, but occasionally the narrative seems to stall, the language becoming rather pedestrian. This is particularly the case when Nayoung settles down into her new home, and Seonkyeong makes the necessary boring and practica; preparations accommodating a new occupant in the house. Perhaps that can be forgiven: Seonkyeong has a demanding job, and suddenly has to take on domestic duties while her husband seems to be no help at all. But elsewhere the language gets repetitive, reminding you what happened just seconds ago, like the voiceover on a daytime TV programme where a viewer is not expected to be paying attention:
“And . . . I called to ask you for something,” she added. There was another reason she’d called. (loc 2819 in Kindle version)
“Yes, I understand. I’ll explain the situation to Kaeun and her mother, and ask for their compassionate understanding as well.” The conversation ended on a good note, with the teacher being understanding. (loc 3182)
In both cases the final sentence imparts no additional information and can be deleted.
But I quibble. This is a good holiday read, and I confess I didn’t see the final twist coming. Seo Miae is working on a sequel which I look forward to reading in due course.
Mi-ae Seo: The Only Child
Translated by Yewon Jung
Point Blank, an imprint of Oneworld Publications, 2020, 304pp
Originally published as 잘 자요 엄마 by Woongjin Thinkbig Co., 2010
*** Spoiler alert***
It’s interesting that the publishers have chosen not to translate the Korean title of the book: presumably because the Korean title (and its French translation Bonne Nuit Maman) gives away one of the elements of the plot.