Review: Kim Bo-young – I’m Waiting for You, and other stories

Genuine question: what was the first work of translated Korean fiction to be released as an audiobook?

I'm Waiting for YouI don’t know the answer to that one. Browsing the Audible catalogue is not easy, but I suspect Penguin wins the prize. Two popular titles published by Penguin – Kim Ji-young, born 1982 and The Hen who dreamed she could fly are available on audio, and they probably beat the more recent My brilliant Life (Kim Aeran, from Forge) to our listening devices.

Be that as it may, the first Korean book I’ve actually listened to in translation is Kim Bo-young’s I’m Waiting For You. It wasn’t a conscious decision to buy an audio version in preference to a printed copy: it was more driven by economy and annoyance. HarperVoyager published the text in hardback in April but those wanting a paperback version had to wait several more months. But with Audible offering a version at only 99p simultaneously with the hardback release, I decided to take the plunge with my first ever book on an iPhone.

It was only later that I realised how appropriate my purchasing decision was. The title story was written as a sort of private audio book: it was commissioned by a man who wanted to record himself reading the story, with the intention of playing the recording to his girlfriend, an avid Kim Bo-young fan. The story is intended as a marriage proposal, and the happy outcome was that the proposal was accepted.

The story takes the form of a series of love-letters from the man to the woman, written across space and time. He is on a two-month journey around the sun and back to kill time while his fiancée is on her way back to Earth from Alpha Centauri. The miracle of time travel means that although the trip (billed the “Orbit of Waiting” by its passengers) will seem like only two months to the travelers, it will actually take four Earth years. He will arrive home at precisely the time his betrothed will also arrive – just before their wedding day, assuming there are no mishaps.

Waiting for You (Korean Cover)
The original Korean cover

In Kim Bo-young’s sci-fi world, it is only possible to travel forwards in time, not backwards. The protagonist’s fellow passengers include jaded office workers who want to arrive back home at precisely the time that they can draw down their pension, skipping out the years of actual work in between. That idea rather appealed to me as I listened to the story on a long walk along the Thames, de-stressing from a work life plagued with zoom calls and bosses constantly urging you to do more with less.

But when playing around in four dimensions, things can go wrong. Responding to another vessel’s distress signal or other unscheduled anomalies can add months or even years of Earth time to a journey, and in those Earth years a lot can change. On a mundane level, will your tenants continue paying their rent? Will your employer keep your job open for you? If not, think what a four year hiatus in your career resume will look like. And although the travelers all hope that the future will be an improvement on the present, nuclear disasters, political upheavals and climate change might dictate otherwise.

Kim Bo-young tantalises us by giving us just one half of the correspondence: the letters the man writes to the woman as they strive to make it to their wedding day. We wonder whether they will ever meet, and if so in what century. Thankfully, a few years after fulfilling the romantic initial commission, Kim gave us the complementary series of letters from the woman to the man – equally touching, and equally dark in their presentation of the human condition.

This pair of short stories is coupled with another pair of stories: The Prophet of Corruption, a high-concept and decidedly meaty saga of conflict between semi-divine beings who can “divide” themselves at will or absorb lesser beings, thus acquiring their accumulated knowledge and experience. It’s a universe in which the accepted orthodoxy is that everyone is part of everything else, and that individualism is a form of corruption.

This pair of stories is less suited to the audiobook experience. I found my mind wandering as these amoral immortals with strange names debate abstract subjects and grand themes. It’s easy to identify with a pair of young lovers struggling to meet despite all the accidents that space and time throw in their way. It’s less easy to make a similar connection with beings whose motivations are less identifiably human, no matter how ingenious and imaginative the creative world that they inhabit. Whereas with I’m waiting for you I found myself walking quite slowly, delaying my return home so that I could listen to the unfolding catalogue of mishaps at leisure, with The Prophet of Corruption I was paying more attention to the scenery, secretly wishing that the narrator would read that little bit faster so that I could get to the end and listen to some music instead. I’d probably have enjoyed it more if I’d been reading the text rather than listening to it.

The audiobook finishes with an interesting essay on how the title story came to be commissioned, along with other notes. Well worth a listen. All the translations flow naturally.

Kim Bo-young: I’m Waiting for You and other stories, HarperVoyager 2021

  • I’m Waiting for You | On my way to you (tr Sophie Bowman) audio version: score-2score-2score-2score-2score-0
  • The Prophet of Corruption | That One Life (tr Sung Ryu) audio version: score-2score-2score-0score-0score-0

Available at Amazon.co.uk, Bookshop.org and elsewhere

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