Originally published in 2015 as 선의 법칙
English translation first published in 2020
The Law of Lines follows the parallel stories of two young women whose lives are upended by sudden loss. When Se-oh, a recluse still living with her father, returns from an errand to find their house in flames, wrecked by a gas explosion, she is forced back into the world she had tried to escape. The detective investigating the incident tells her that her father caused the explosion to kill himself because of overwhelming debt she knew nothing about, but Se-oh suspects foul play by an aggressive debt collector and sets out on her own investigation, seeking vengeance.
Ki-jeong, a beleaguered high school teacher, receives a phone call from the police saying that the body of her younger half-sister has just been found. Her sister was a college student she had grown distant from. Though her death, by drowning, is considered a suicide by the police, that doesn’t satisfy Ki-jeong, and she goes to her sister’s university to find out what happened. Her sister’s cell phone reveals a thicket of lies and links to a company that lures students into a virtual pyramid scheme, preying on them and their relationships. One of the contacts in the call log is Se-oh.
The Law of Lines is a novel in which two women, one in her teens and the other in her twenties, investigate the reasons that a loved one committed suicide. It is a novel in which we learn about and witness multiple crimes taking place and yet for almost the whole novel absolutely no laws are broken.
A note of warning: While I have tried to avoid revealing the exact nature of the novel’s resolution, I think it would be pretty meaningless to discuss this book without going into some detail about the novel’s themes and ideas. Consider this more a reaction than a review. What follows contains spoilers…
The novel can certainly be described as literary but it also contains elements and an outlook that could be identified as noir. For instance, the novel strikes a rather bleak tone and is fundamentally concerned with the hazy lines that exist between good and evil.
I would suggest too that while the book is about Korean capitalism, the idea of crime sits absolutely at the heart of this story. The lines in the title could be seen to represent legal divisions as I think that a key idea of the novel is that something can be morally wrong and yet perfectly legal. In fact, the entire system may be stacked to produce that outcome.
So, what are those crimes? The book discusses two types of predatory financial systems, each of which strip those caught up in them of their humanity and ability to exercise their free will. The novel explores and reflects on the decisions of those who become the victims of those schemes showing that while some find themselves in danger because of greed, most are simply helpless. When we learn the details of why Se-oh’s father ended up so heavily in debt it is quite clear that the odds had been quite purposefully stacked against him. The system wanted him to fail and he had little power to change it.
While the details of predatory lending are pretty familiar the world over, the description of the lives of those caught in the pyramid scheme are interesting and incredibly sad. I would suggest though that the real interest here lies not so much in the details of the schemes as in the way it affects those who engage with them and the way they respond to the pressures they are placed under.
I cannot say that I particularly enjoyed exploring those feelings and experiences – it is far too desperately sad – but I think the author does a really effective job of creating a sense of empathy for all those involved. In essence the journey we take as readers is to recognize that while we begin the novel, like Se-oh and Ki-jeong, looking for individuals to blame, the entire system is essentially to blame. Everyone is drowning and grabbing hold of someone to keep them afloat.
The other thing that I think that the book does really well is subtly introduce parallels between elements and experiences that might otherwise seem quite disconnected. To give an example the book takes the time to explore the character of the debt collector and while I would not suggest he is a sympathetic character, I think we do understand him pretty well by the end of the book. To take another, in the character of the student who drags Ki-jeong down with him we can see the same greed and calculation that we can see in some of the participants in the Pyramid scheme.
As interesting as these themes are, I think the book does not always balance its two protagonists well. I hinted earlier at how Ki-jeong becomes more of an observer than a participant in events with the action increasingly focused on Se-oh. While the circumstances of her introduction to the story are memorable, her passivity makes her feel underwritten and her journey here feels rather hollow.
Se-oh’s path on the other hand is more interesting, leading up to something of a decision point which at least gives her some agency. Ultimately though I think that the author undercuts that moment but I do appreciate that it does feel like she takes a complete journey and is changed by her experiences.
Ultimately I think I would character The Law of Lines as an interesting series of reflections and ideas concerning the nature of justice. It is often quite provocative and I do think there are some aspects of the conclusion that feel powerful. Looked at purely in terms of the narrative however I think some may find it a difficult read. The world Hye-Young Pyun depicts is bleak and depressing and the story is really driven by its thematic rather than plotting elements, making for a reading experience that is more interesting and powerful than it is entertaining.
The Verdict: I cannot say I enjoyed The Law of Lines but I certainly found its discussion of poverty and the extents people will go to in order to survive interesting, if really bleak.