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Review: JM Lee — Broken Summer

cover art: Broken SummerA seemingly ideal partnership between a successful artist and a doting wife who is also his manager suddenly dissolves when the wife walks out without warning, leaving behind a surprise which the artist knows will shortly destroy his reputation and career. The artist had clearly been living a lie, with his wife plotting his destruction for months if not years. And the nature of the ticking time bomb points to an event many years ago as the trigger for this disaster.

The event was the death of an attractive girl, found dead in a stream near a reservoir. The location of the death brings to mind Jeong You-jeong’s excellent Seven Years of Darkness, and this thriller is on a par with Jeong’s. There is a sense of foreboding early on in the narrative, as we are still getting to know some of the characters and before we fully get immersed in the plot:

A blue vein running from her collarbone split in two as it reached her Adam’s apple. The louder she cried, the thicker and clearer the vein swelled. (p18)

And, two paragraphs later

Jisoo’s foot narrowly avoided a sharp stone. Hanjo was worried her bare white feet might be cut; then he suddenly longed to see red blood on her scratched little toe.

Despite these early threats of carnage, JM Lee’s Broken Summer will appeal to those for whom Seven Years had too much brutality.

Nevertheless, there seems no reason to suspect that the girl had taken her own life, particularly given some of the forensic evidence. This is fortunate for the girl’s father, who is running for the post of local mayor (think Lee Kyoung-mi’s thriller The Truth Beneath), and for whom a family suicide could have become a political liability. Any doubts are put to rest when the police identify a culprit who confesses to the murder. But as readers we are never quite sure whether the case has actually been solved.

The individual chapters in the novel focus on the perspectives of different actors in the story: the artist, his brother and wife: the dead girl and her sister; and two of the police investigators. In this respect it resembles Kwon Yeo-sun’s Lemon, but fortunately there is sufficient overlap between the perspectives to help us piece together what we think might be the solution to the problem. But there remain some loose ends, so that readers can supply their own answers should they so wish.

The novel is perfect as a holiday read: not too taxing but with enough ideas and momentum to keep you turning the pages swiftly. The themes include the workings of the art market, the gap between rich and poor; love, infatuation, and sexual consent; broken promises and mistaken assumptions; the secrets we keep and the lies we tell; plus one of the most intricately-planned and devastating revenge narratives, involving a level of investment and execution risk that puts the plot of Oldboy in the shade.

The pacing of the novel is on a par with JM Lee’s previous novel The Boy who Escaped Paradise, and the translation by An Seon Jae reads naturally. Recommended.

Broken Summer is released on Amazon Crossing on 1 September 2022. Thanks to the translator for an advance review copy.

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