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Brief review: June Hur – The Silence of Bones

Cover: The Silence of BonesMy reading diary so far this year has been getting me rather bogged down. In part that’s because there seems to be so little time for reading nowadays, and partly because my choice of reading material has been overly serious and lengthy.

First was The Scorpion, a 400-plus page novel from the rather dour genre dubbed pundan munhak (literature of national division). That was a time-consuming but ultimately rewarding read when I think about it now, but hardly lightweight. Next came the letters from prison of a well-known liberal thinker: again, despite endorsements from President Moon among others, it’s not something you read for pleasure and I’m still wading my way through it.

So on a day when, recovering from the common bug that’s going around, I felt like resting and doing nothing other than read a good story, I downloaded June Hur’s The Silence of Bones, a detective novel set in early 19th Century Seoul.

It was just what I needed: a fast-flowing yarn that I could just immerse myself in. It is set in the same world as Yi In-hwa’s Everlasting Empire – the pivotal moment on the death of King Jeongjo when conservative forces began to gain the upper hand, targeting the new Catholic religion and the open-minded Southerner faction.

At its centre is a feisty 16-year-old girl called Seol, a servant attached to the police investigations department who, apart from sweeping the yard and serving tea to her male superiors, is expected to do more demanding tasks which Confucian protocol prevents men from doing – for example moving female corpses or searching the women’s quarters of a house. And when a noblewoman is found murdered, Seol finds herself doing both, and more – such as interviewing one of the servant women – and soon proves herself invaluable to her boss. If Seol shows a maturity beyond her years and a sense of confidence and self-worth beyond her social status that could be because she is from a disgraced aristocratic family, but also she’s just naturally curious and forthright.

The main plot is, of course, the investigation of the murder of Lady O: is it to do with her Catholic faith, or retribution for sexual infidelity? Before long some suspects become evident, but as is the way of murder mysteries the plot soon thickens with other crimes to solve. Meanwhile subplots involving long-lost siblings and illegitimate offspring bring emotional complexity to a story in which loyalties are challenged to the full, while secondary characters including a shaman, a gisaeng and a hidden priest bring additional layers of interest.

June Hur has clearly done her research, and shows enough mastery of the historical context and factual details to make this a comfortable read, while the police procedural aspects make the framework of the story familiar to its target modern young adult audience. It’s refreshing to have a novel with a strong female character as its centre and it’s made me want to try her other novels.

The Silence of Bones is published by Feiwel + Friends (2020). For the same author and publisher: The Forest of Stolen Girls (2021) and The Red Palace (2022)

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