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Review: If You Leave Me, by Crystal Hana Kim
Morrow, 2018. 418 pp. $27

When Communist-aided forces in northern Korea invade the south, sixteen-year-old Haemi, her mother, and young brother, Hyunki, who’s tubercular, flee for their lives on foot. A year later, in 1951, the refugee family lives a precarious existence in Busan, a seaport nestled in the tip of the Korean Peninsula. Haemi goes to school and is bright enough to stay with it, if she wants.

But education is makeshift, and in a country invaded and a war that seems destined to remain a fruitless stalemate, even educated women have little scope. Besides, who can imagine a rosy, far-off future when tomorrow, and the next day, hunger will wrack your body and spirit the same way it does today?

The Busan-Seoul road, a supply lifeline–but mostly for the military (courtesy U.S. Army and http://www.kmike.com/Appleman/Chapter13.htm#9 via Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

As a form of escape, Haemi sneaks out at night to drink moonshine with Kyunghwan, a handsome, slightly older boy she’s known all her life. These risky outings, which she has to balance with her responsibilities for Hyunki’s care — the boy’s cough is alarming — provide another danger. Physically attracted to Kyunghwan, Haemi believes he shares her feelings and wants him to declare himself.

But he won’t, and when her mother pushes her to accept a marriage proposal from Jisoo, Kyunghwan’s cousin, because he has more money and better prospects, the girl agrees. The boys go off to war, and Haemi waits for her life to begin, though as a nurse’s assistant at a military hospital, she glimpses a path that she wishes she could follow.

An old story, a love triangle, and for at least the first half of If You Leave Me, Kim makes her narrative seem like a fresh take. It’s not just Haemi’s existence that’s precarious — it’s Korea’s — and the presence of the American “liberators” cuts in several directions. I like this part of the novel the best, in which Korean aspirations for freedom and prosperity, represented by the characters’ dreams, run up against poverty, desperation, and brutal circumstance. How these people carve out niches for themselves, or try to, makes compelling reading. Throughout, those who have money can skate through; those who don’t may well be beating their heads against a concrete wall.

Kim’s prose, sparse, carefully observed, and devoted to moment-to-moment gesture and feeling, fits the story like a glove. Consider this passage early on, when Jisoo becomes Haemi’s suitor, and the girl’s living situation moves him:

On my earlier visits, I’d never been allowed beyond the front door.… The sitting room was spare, more miserable than I’d expected. The hanji paper had been ripped off the walls and windows, revealing bare clay and open frames. But I appreciated their effort to make it a home. A bowl of dried flowers decorated a small desk. Straw floor cushions were piled neatly in a corner. The open windows brought in a soft breeze. I smiled. “A real home. You’re lucky.”

Unfortunately, If You Leave Me loses momentum a few years after the war, when Haemi and Jisoo have children, while Kyunghwan has searched about for a successful career. Part of my impatience comes from how I see the characters, whose appeal wears thin after a while. Haemi, frustrated by her role as wife and mother, wants more and dreams of Kyunghwan, even though she knows it’s not a man she needs but a larger life. Her bitterness and mercurial moods upset everyone, and you want her to act. But this is midcentury Korea, so she’s trapped.

Jisoo, marked by his wartime experiences, can’t listen to her (or anyone else) and expects obedience. That’s an important cultural and political comment, and perhaps why Kim wrote her novel, but a theme isn’t a story, and I want to see other sides to him, to have this conflict go somewhere. As for Kyunghwan, he can’t befriend anyone for real, pleasant as he can be sometimes, so he too remains at a distance. Will he or won’t he visit his old friends? And if he does, what will happen? The answers are fairly predictable, yet still constrained by societal rules.

Finally, as the characters settle into their prescribed roles, the narrative presents a lot of back-and-forth, especially marital quarrels, that feels repetitive, both in action and theme. The almost constant argumentation seldom gets beyond You’re selfish; no, you’re selfish. That’s too bad, because the historical background, unfamiliar to me and probably to most Americans, furnishes an excellent atmosphere for what Kim wishes to say, and if she pushed the envelope a little, maybe the characters would have taken a leap.

If You Leave Me is her first novel. I hope the author’s future efforts develop her readily apparent gifts.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.