Book review: Jeong You-jeong – Seven Years of Darkness

Seven Years of Darkness: coverJeong You-jeong: Seven Years of Darkness
Translated by Kim Chi-young
Penguin / Little, Brown 2020
Originally published as 7년의 밤, EunHaeng NaMu Publishing Co, Seoul 2011
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It felt like a long wait. We’d seen the movie adaptation a few years ago (Choo Chang-min’s Seven Years of Night, which screened at the London Korean Film Festival 2018), and we heard the author talk about the movie adaptation at the screening. But what we didn’t have was an English translation of the book itself. Following the success of Jeong You-jeong’s The Good Son (review here), that gap has now at last been remedied, and the wait was worth it.

Beware: the discussion below contains minor spoilers. If you don’t want to proceed further, here’s the summary: this is a darn good thriller. I’d rate it higher than The Good Son, and up there with Kim Unsu’s The Plotters (review here), so don’t hesitate.

Jeong You-jeong introduces the movie 7년의 밤
Jeong You-jeong introduces the movie 7년의 밤 with Anton Bitel and Rho Seh-hyun on 2 Nov 2018 (photo: LKL)

Choi Sowon is eighteen. He has spent the last seven years moving from school to school and from one distant relative to another: just as he begins to settle in somewhere new, his identity is revealed as the son of Choi Hyonsu,

a crazed murderer who who had killed an eleven-year-old girl and her father, thrown his own wife into the river, and then opened the floodates of the dam above Seryong Village, drowning four police officers and wiping out nearly half the town. (somewhere around location 100 of 4304 in my Kindle version)

Sowon is increasing pushed to the margins of society. His father, convicted of the killings, is in prison awaiting execution. That much is laid before us in the opening pages of the book. What the remaining pages of the novel explore is how many of the accepted “facts” of the case are true, and what drove Hyonsu to commit that last mad, destructive act of inundating the village below the dam. There are also some loose ends to tie up in the present day.

Hyonsu seems like a regular guy: a failed baseball player, he gets a job as chief of security at Seryong Dam because it comes with free accommodation, thus enabling him to rent out the apartment that his wife has just borrowed beyond their means in order to buy. But he has a drink problem that has tragic consequences. On a night-time mission to check out his accommodation before starting his job, he manages to run over the eleven-year-old girl on a foggy bend in the road. Panicked – he had already lost his driving licence for drunk driving – he dumps the girl in the reservoir and gets his car repaired.

The girl’s father, Oh Yongje, happens to be a bigshot in the village and wants to make sure that whoever was responsible for his daughter’s death pays dearly. You might think that he wants revenge because he loved his daughter dearly. But Yongje is not that kind of guy. He has very particular reasons for wanting the killer to pay, and he seems to have the resources and motivation to exact a form of retaliatory justice worthy of the most notorious Korean vengeance movies.

Jeong is without doubt a superb story-teller. In Yongje she has created a splendid villain: controlling, calculating, cold-hearted and vindictive. And the way she unfurls the plot, revealing the tragedy of  Hyonsu, trapped by circumstances, by chance, and ultimately by the spider’s web woven by Yongje,  keeps you on the edge of your seat. Seriously, I had to put the book down at one climactic moment because the narrative was too tense and, frankly, brutal. I needed to take a break from what was happening before resuming the action.

7 years of darkness - Korean version
The cover art of the original Korean version of the book
As far as I remember the movie, it stays pretty close to the plot of the book, though focusing more on the events seven years ago rather than the present day. To jog my memory, I scanned some of the reviews available online. Characteristically, Paul Quinn’s review of the movie is probably the most thoughtful of those available, and he highlights two elements of the movie which seemed to him less than satisfactory: the the general atmosphere of the supernatural that haunts the reservoir, and specifically the way the spirit of the dead girl seems to linger after death, haunting the young boy Sowon who is about her age. Secondly the flash-backs that haunt Hyonsu, involving a voice coming out of a well.

Both elements are there in the novel, so director Choo Chang-min did not gratuitously introduce them into the movie to appeal to fans of Ha Hongjin’s The Wailing or Huh Jung’s The Mimic. In fact, the voice from the well is an integral part of the backstory that explains Hyonsu’s guilty sleepwalking at the time of the disaster. But as noted by Quinn and other reviewers, the ghostly appearance of the girl feels like an undeveloped thread in the movie, and so it seems in the novel too. Nevertheless, it feels rather poignant that Sowon has this kind of spiritual connection with the dead girl, to the extent that when interviewed by police about the climactic incident seven years ago all he can remember is that he was playing “red light, green light” with the ghost of the girl who was already dead. It is also touching that the shamanistic ceremony arranged by Yongje as part of his grand plan for ensnaring the man responsible for his daughter’s death could also be seen by Sowon as a genuine (though, as we discover later, failed) attempt to lay to rest the ghost of the girl.

Perhaps another undeveloped plot point is the backstory detailing how and why Yongje assembled his “Supporters”, a shadowy collection of characters who are at his beck and call to do private investigation work and various acts of thuggery, and without whom he would have been far less able to weave his sinister web. With such resources at Yongje’s disposal anyone he has in his sights doesn’t stand much of a chance.

Finally, a plot element I don’t recall from the movie: throughout the seven years, Sowon has had a friend and guardian angel in the person Ahn Sunghwan, a writer who worked in Hyonsu’s security team at the dam in order to make a living while suffering from writer’s block. Sunghwan was also caught up in the events seven years ago, and in the interim has conducted painstaking research to uncover the hidden truths with the aim of writing a novel. It is these research materials that enable Sowon to tie up those last few loose ends, and which of course result in the novel which we, the reading public, can enjoy.

Like I said already: don’t hesitate.

Incidentally, the Kindle version I bought from Amazon.co.uk seems to be missing a couple of pages of text, or at least a marker indicating a section break, near location 3464 of 4304. Whether this is an editorial or a technological error I’m not sure. The glitch did not seriously impact the thread of the story, but it did cause me to go back over the narrative discontinuity to see if I had missed anything.

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