Lemon by Kwon Yeo-Sun, translated by Janet Hong

Originally published in 2019 as 레몬
English translation first published in 2021

In the summer of 2002, when Korea is abuzz over hosting the FIFA World Cup, eighteen-year-old Kim Hae-on is killed in what becomes known as the High School Beauty Murder[…]
Seventeen years pass without any resolution for those close to Hae-on, and the grief and uncertainty take a cruel toll on her younger sister, Da-on, in particular[…]
Shifting between the perspectives of Da-on and two of Hae-on’s classmates struck in different ways by her otherworldly beauty, Lemon ostensibly takes the shape of a crime novel. But identifying the perpetrator is not the main objective here: Kwon Yeo-sun uses this well-worn form to craft a searing, timely exploration of privilege, jealousy, trauma, and how we live with the wrongs we have endured and inflicted in turn.

I hope you will forgive me starting out by talking about my own blogging process but I think in the instance of Lemon it will be important to consider. This blog, Mysteries Ahoy!, is devoted to discussing works that fall within the very broad and rather imprecise category we term ‘mystery fiction’. I personally interpret that term more widely than some and over the years I have written and posted about works that I think sit on the edge of that genre or that have, at best, genre elements.

The compromise that I typically come to when writing about such works is that I will try and assess them within the context of the genre. I may reference aspects of the book I have enjoyed that fall without that but the focus will usually be on those parts of a work that I think will most directly appeal to genre fans. In writing about Lemon however I think I am going to find that approach tested because while the book may be described as ‘ostensibly tak[ing] the shape of a crime novel’ in its blurb, I think that description misrepresents the themes the author is exploring and the approach they have taken. Or, to put it another way, I would be doing this work a bit of a disservice.

A crime certainly does lie at the heart of Lemon: the murder of teenaged Kim Hae-on. This crime impacts every character in the novel and drives all of the action and the development of each of the characters and yet the novel is not focused on discovering the truth of what happened but rather exploring the impact that crime has had upon the lives of those who were involved. There are no definitive answers given so while the reader will likely finish the book with a sense of who was guilty and why, there is enough ambiguity to allow for other plausible explanations.

The novella is told from the perspective of three different characters: the girl’s sister, Da-on, and two of Hae-on’s classmates. Unlike many books with multiple narrators, the author does not tell the reader who is narrating each chapter – the only information we get is a date and a keyword, the meaning of which will only become clear at the end of each section. I initially found this to be a confusing and perhaps frustrating choice though I quickly came to identify the voices by the context of what was being said.

One interesting consequence of the use of this multiple narrator approach is that the reader will be able to see a contrast between how each character perceives themselves and the way they are viewed by others. This allows our understanding of some of the key figures in the book to shift as we gain additional context. In fact when I finished reading I felt that I wanted to revisit the earlier chapters to reassess them in the light of information I had learned later in the book.

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the novella for me was its depiction of the intense grief felt by the victim’s mother and sister. The way that this manifests, particularly in the case of the mother, is unusual but it is all the more powerful for that. The book captures that way that grief can be awkward and uncomfortable, and that society can sometimes struggle to know how to respond to it – particularly when it is as raw as it is here. I felt that the author captured those emotions powerfully, connecting me to those characters and their struggles.

I was also quite struck by the scenes involving the character who is supposed to have been the last person to see Hae-on alive, the delivery driver Han Manu. Our first experience of this character is an account of his interrogation by the police based on Da-on’s knowledge and imagination – an interesting idea as it means we have little sense of how reliable or accurate that scene could be. I think that scene does illustrate quite cleverly how a poor interrogation could produce a misleading impression and I thought that the author did a good job of exploring how the consequences of that experience would affect him for the rest of his life, leaving him in an awkward space where he was suspected but unable to prove himself innocent.

Some of the other characters in the story however felt less carefully defined, particularly the other male suspect – Shin Jeongjun. I had little sense of him as a figure and so while I learned some details about his character, I felt that he remained somewhat two-dimensional to me at the end. Similarly I felt that I didn’t really as complete an understanding of Taerin’s character as I would like. Perhaps the biggest questions though revolve around the victim, Hae-on, and while I felt I understood what she did, I was left at the end of the book feeling I didn’t understand why she behaved as she did.

It is that sense that too much remains unexplained or unanswered that keeps this from feeling truly satisfying when looked at through that mystery or crime novel lens. Those questions are simply not of interest to the author and are tangential to the journey that she intends to lead us on. This isn’t a work about the search for the truth but rather an examination of grief and how a lack of resolution affects everyone involved in the case. Viewed at from that perspective it can be an intriguing work but readers who want firm answers and a strong narrative structure may feel a little frustrated.

The Verdict: With an emphasis on theme over narrative, Lemon is an intriguing read but those expecting a genre read may find themselves frustrated.

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