Originally published in 2011 as 7년의 밤
English language translation published in 2020
A young girl is found dead in Seryong Lake, a reservoir in a remote South Korean village. The police immediately begin their investigation.
At the same time, three men – Yongje, the girl’s father, and two security guards at the nearby dam, each of whom has something to hide about the night of her death – find themselves in an elaborate game of cat and mouse as they race to uncover what happened to her, without revealing their own closely guarded secrets.
When a final showdown at the dam results in a mass tragedy, one of the guards is convicted of murder and sent to prison.
For seven years, his son, Sowon, lives in the shadow of his father’s shocking and inexplicable crime. When Sowon receives a package that promises to reveal at last what really happened at Seryong Lake, he must confront a present danger he never knew existed.
Sowon was just eleven years old on the night that became known as the Seryong Lake Disaster. On that night Seryong Village was destroyed when Sowon’s father who was in charge of security at Seryong Dam opened its sluice gates, causing water to flood and drown the town. His father became known as a crazed murderer with Sowon’s mother among his victims and Sowon, abandoned by his family, is forced into a drifter’s existence with Mr. Ahn, the man who had worked for his father and been his roommate in the weeks leading up to that disastrous night.
We get a brief description of what that existence was like before jumping forwards to a day when Sowon receives a package containing an incomplete manuscript written by Mr. Ahn. In that manuscript Sowon reads an account of the events leading up to that night apparently drawing on interviews and learns more of the background to that crime, realizing that there were many things he did not know about those events. Most of the rest of the book is made up of that account with occasional reactions from Sowon as we learn how he interprets what he reads.
Last year I read and wrote about The Good Son, the first of You-Jeong Jeong’s novels to be translated into English. I ended my review by sharing my hope that its success would lead to further translations and singled out this title as the one I would be most interested to read. The reason that this one in particular jumped out at me was that it seemed to be a more conventional mystery, albeit more of a whydunnit than a whodunnit.
I think it is true to say that questions of motive lie at the heart of this book. While we do not witness the events of that night in the prologue, his father admits his guilt and so the question is what drove him to an action that seems inconsistent with Sowon’s memories of him prior to that night. The answers to that question lie in an exploration of the years leading up to that night and, more specifically, in the discovery of a young girl’s body in the reservoir shortly before the flooding.
Sowon does not begin the book by looking for the truth. If anything he has spent the best part of a decade running away from the events of that night, trying to separate himself from his father’s crimes. Instead it seems to hold a grim fascination for him, particularly as just a few hours later he receives a package addressed by someone else containing a copy of a Sunday Magazine article that would always find its way into the hands of his classmates at the various schools he attended and a single Nike shoe with his name written on the tongue – a shoe he had lost at Seryong Lake.
I commented in my review of The Good Son that the protagonist in that story was quite passive and I think the same can be said of Sowon in this book. For much of the book he is simply absorbing information, sometimes reacting to things that stand out or making connections between some events that Mr. Ahn was unaware of, but taking little action. I did find myself wondering why Mr. Ahn was not chosen to be the protagonist since he had clearly done most of the legwork in piecing the events together.
There are, of course, good reasons for this choice. Sowon is the most sympathetic character in the book with the exception of the dead girl, as he is clearly a victim of the events of that night. By telling the story from his perspective, we also are invited to wonder about the motivations of Mr. Ahn and then, towards the end, we follow Sowon as he has to decide how to respond to what he has learned. While that may make him an unimpressive investigator, he is the character who is most intimately concerned in the outcome of the investigation and the character we most want to see find some form of closure at the end.
The decision to tell the story out of sequence with the Ahn manuscript as a framework works well as it encourages the reader to consider those events knowing the outcome. We look, in particular, for those issues with his parents’ marriage along with the discovery of the body.
The strength of the work lies in its characters. While Sowon is quite innocent, most of the other characters are rendered as complex and there is often a disconnect between the intentions of an action and its impact. One of my favorites is Mr. Ahn, the man who ends up taking Sowon in when his family abandon him. The description of how that comes to happen is rather heartbreaking and I appreciated the bond they form.
The more Sowon and we learn, the more we understand exactly what happened on that night and why things happened that way. We even learn more about why Sowon’s life has unfolded since then in the way it has, making for a pleasingly rich narrative. While Seven Years of Darkness is not always a comfortable read, particularly in the passages describing the events leading up to the girl’s death, it is well written and it builds to a compelling conclusion. In thos final pages we finally learn much of the truth about exactly what happened at those sluice gates and Sowon is pushed to take action.
I cannot really call many of the revelations or developments shocking. Jeong lays out her characters and the situation too well for anything to feel like a twist – but our understanding of those events does evolve as we learn more about that night and the personalities of those involved. Instead it feels more like piecing together a jigsaw – we have chunks of the puzzle but it takes a while to place them correctly in relation to each other.
I found the process of piecing together the various things we knew to be interesting and I appreciated that the explanation as to what happens feels deeply rooted in the characters we have spent the book getting to know. It makes for an interesting and rewarding read and I am happy to see that it seems to also be well received. Here’s hoping that one of the author’s other novels may follow soon…
The Verdict: This whydunnit is a fascinating exploration of a historical crime and the way its notoriety affects the life of its young protagonist.