Someone, somewhere, must have done a study of multi-person narratives in Korean fiction – novels which tell the same story (or different episodes involving the same characters) from two or more different perspectives. Two of the best-loved Korean novels in translation use the technique: Please Look After Mother and The Vegetarian. And this year, we’ve been treated to another two (there may be more): Choi Jin-young’s To The Warm Horizon (if I don’t get around to writing a review, let me note here that it gets a thumbs-up) and now Kwon Yeo-sun’s Lemon (review copy courtesy of the publisher). The technique can help consolidate a picture, leading to a greater understanding of a scenario by giving us complementary viewpoints. Or, Rashomon-style, it can unsettle you and introduce doubt where you thought you had had the measure of the situation.
Enter Lemon, the latest from Barbara J Zitwer‘s stable of Korean authors, which follows in the footsteps of other K-thrillers from that source such as Kim Unsu’s The Plotters, Jeong You-jeong’s The Good Son, and Seo Mi-ae’s The Only Child. This one is shorter than most – you can probably read it in one sitting – and had me gripped from the start.
The story focuses on the unsolved murder of a schoolgirl 17 years ago. The girl was impossibly beautiful. Here’s the reaction of one of her classmates on first seeing her:
The loveliness I had glimpsed from her profile bloomed wide, like a parachute bursting open. I felt as if I were going to explode. Her beauty seemed not of this world, a kind you rarely encountered. … After witnessing such astonishing beauty, the other students’ faces appeared crude, dreary, even lopsided. (p29)
There are two prime suspects, a delivery boy from an underprivileged background and a boy from the other end of the social spectrum. No prizes for guessing who the police focus on as the main person of interest; but as we learn during the course of the story, wealth is no indicator of good character.
Such loveliness is bound to inspire strong emotions, whether of desire or of jealousy. As we hear the story and its aftermath told from the perspective of three different people (the victim’s younger sister and two of her classmates) we come to the suspicion that it might not have been a male hand that wielded the blunt instrument to “bash in the small head of a girl with smooth glossy hair” (p20).
The author’s skill is to drop a hint as to who did the deed, but then retain our interest through deft portrait-painting of the different characters in the story (narrators and otherwise), presenting us with motivations and suspicions that conflict with our provisional view. In the end, am I 100% sure who I’m supposed to think committed the crime? Maybe not, and experienced readers of crime stories might come to a firmer conclusion than me. But what I found satisfying in this brief page-turner were the psychological insights into the minds of the participants, the feelings of resentment, entitlement and other human emotions, and, in the case of the victim, a complete lack of self-awareness. It’s well worth a re-read for that alone, but also to see if I can come to a firmer conclusion the second time around; and it has made me want to track down the two short stories by the same author that are available from Asia Publishers.
Lemon will be published on 14 October 2021. Available from Bookshop.org, Amazon and of course your local book store.
Kwon Yeo-sun: Lemon
Translated by Janet Hong.
Head of Zeus, 2021, 147pp
Originally published as 레몬, Changbi Publishers, 2019