For my birthday last month my wife decided to take me on a sort of whistle stop tour of several bookshops in the area. While I didn’t have a whole lot of luck at any of the secondhand bookstores, I did get pick up a few more recent translated crime works including this Korean thriller from You-Jeong Jeong who is compared in blurbs to Stephen King and Patricia Highsmith.
These author comparisons are rarely accurate or informative but while I think this author’s work has its own distinctive qualities, I can at least understand what inspired these comparisons though I think Highsmith is the more apt of the two both in tone and subject matter. For my part I would draw some comparisons with Ruth Rendell’s work.
Apparently this book has been something of a hit, being picked for as a book of the Summer by several magazines and websites. All that hype passed me by at the time however and so I came to this with few expectations at all. I think that worked to the book’s credit in this case and I do suspect that if I had read a few of those raves I may have been a little disappointed.
The Good Son opens with the narrator, twenty-six year old law student Yu-jin, awakening to a strange metallic smell and a confusing phone call from his brother asking if everything is okay. When he leaves his room he finds his mother lying dead in a pool of blood at the foot of the stairs with her throat slit.
At first Yu-jin does not remember anything of the night before, a common side effect of the seizures he suffers from. Recognizing that things look bad for him he decides he needs to learn what happened and he starts to try and piece together his memories over the course of several days while covering up his mother’s death to buy himself some time.
The memory loss and extreme violence of the mother’s death make for an arresting beginning to the novel and I did find the situation interesting, even if I felt fairly sure from the start that I knew who was responsible for the death. I should say that I do not think You-Jeong Jeong gives away that point herself but rather the book’s blurb makes it pretty clear where this story would be headed. In any case, I do not think it is a problem that this aspect of the story is given away as there remains a mystery as to why this murder took place at all.
Yu-jin is an intriguing protagonist and while I cannot say I liked him or enjoyed his company, I did find his backstory to be quite compelling. This backstory is partly explored through his own memories and partly from the perspectives of other characters in the form of documents he reads and responds to throughout the novel.
Some of the promotional quotes you may read will describe him as an unreliable narrator which I don’t think is really very accurate. It is true that he does not share every relevant piece of information with the reader immediately but I do not think this is supposed to be an act of manipulation by that character. For one thing this story isn’t really presented as though it is a document written by him for a third party to read. Instead I think it is clear that any information he does not share initially is because it did not seem relevant to him at that time and, in some cases, because he does not remember events the way other characters do. This, to me, is one of the central ideas of the book – that characters have their own perspectives and may experience the same event in different ways.
I thought that the information revealed in the course of Yu-jin’s investigation added enormously to my understanding of his character and of the book’s themes yet I did not care for the way this was handled narratively as we are told what happened rather than shown it. Essentially the character spends much of the book reading and reflecting upon a document that he reads in sections working backwards in time, prompting him to remember relevant details and gain a greater understanding for his situation.
While I do not have any inherent objection to discovering information through documents, my problem with this approach here is that it renders Yu-jin a largely passive figure for much of the story. Any actions he takes are in reaction to an immediate threat of discovery but he does not have much to do beyond reading and thinking. As interesting as some of the revelations are, the inaction in the present makes it feel a curiously academic exercise, eliminating any tension that could otherwise be built up in those scenes. Coupled with Yu-jin’s calm, relatively emotionless persona this makes much of the story feel oddly static and while there are some flashes of tension at points, the lack of urgency during this central section of the book detracted from its impact.
In contrast I think several of the supporting characters are quite interesting and I found learning about their stories and relationships to each other to be more compelling. There are some compelling moments and ideas here, not least in the relationship between his mother and aunt, and I think it is in the portrayals of these characters that the book comes closest to defying expectations. Similarly the book’s most interesting questions all spring out of these characterizations.
While I think Yu-jin’s issues are clear, even if they need more explanation, from an early point in the book I found the relationships between the other members of his family and their feelings towards him to be quite ambiguous at first. Given we see them initially from Yu-jin’s perspective and hear what he thinks their views of him are, we do not truly know them until we are close to the novel’s conclusion. In each case I found the characters to be more interesting and complex than I had expected.
The novel’s conclusion works well and is thankfully free of the pacing issues and passivity I felt damaged the middle sections of the novel. I would suggest that they are quite thrilling, containing a few moments of fantastic tension and even a few surprises. My suspicion is that much of the praise for this book is derived from this short final section of the novel. I was certainly satisfied and felt that it did a great job of bringing everything together.
So, where does that leave me overall? I should begin by saying that those looking for a mystery should look elsewhere. While some stores and libraries are shelving it that way, it really is much more of a thriller. There are some interesting things to discover but it is much more of an exploration of a character and the way their life has developed.
At times it is really quite clever and I think it does build to a powerful and satisfying finish. My problem was a stylistic one – I wanted to see Yu-jin play a more active part in finding out about his past and in uncovering what had happened or for there to be a little more variety in the way he learns about it. Instead I found the novel’s midsection to be a bit of a slog.
While I wasn’t as thrilled about this book as many seem to have been, I do think the author creates an interesting premise and characters. This is the first of her books to have appeared in English translation but I would certainly be interested to read the others, particularly Seven Years of Night (7년의 밤) which sounds like my sort of read. Hopefully, given the success that this book seems to have found, those others may follow…
Update: 3/2/2020 – The good news is that book I hoped would be translated is on its way. Titled Seven Years of Darkness, it will be released on June 2nd. It has also been translated by Chi-Young Kim.