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By Kwon Yeo-sun Translated by Janet Hong 147 pages, $20.00, New York: Other Press [2021]

More Than a Gripping Murder Mystery

Novelist Kwon Yeo-sun’s English-language debut, “Lemon” opens in an interrogation room, where Han Manu is being questioned about the murder of one of his classmates, a beautiful girl named Hae-on. To be more precise, the novel opens in the mind of Hae-on’s younger sister, Da-on, as she imagines what must have happened in the interrogation room in 2002. She knows that Manu is a little slow, and she imagines that his seemingly inconsistent statements must have convinced the police that this boy was the murderer. There is another suspect, the rich and popular Shin Jeongjun, but he is quickly cleared of suspicion when his alibi checks out. Yet, with insufficient evidence to charge Manu, the case, known as “The High School Beauty Murder,” remains unsolved. Da-on spends the next 16 years reliving every detail in the hope of finding some resolution.

Don’t let this brief synopsis fool you, though. This isn’t a crime novel, or at least it isn’t a mere whodunit. The question of who killed Hae-on is explored throughout the book, but a far more important question is what Da-on asks herself in the first chapter: “What meaning, then, could life possibly hold?” When the maelstrom of emotions that enveloped her after her sister’s death subsides, she finds herself still tormented by guilt. A psychiatrist might label this “survivor’s guilt,” but for Da-on it runs deeper, as she wonders if she ever even loved her sister. Perhaps most painful of all is the realization that, no matter what the case might be, she can never go back and change what has already been decided.

Although Da-on narrates half of the book’s chapters, she isn’t the only point-of-view character; two chapters each are narrated by Sanghui and Taerim, classmates of Hae-on.

Sanghui isn’t close to Hae-on, but her relationship with Daon gives us a different perspective on the younger sister.

Taerim is more directly involved in the case: she was with Manu when she last saw Hae-on, and she eventually married Jeongjun. We only see Manu and Jeongjun through the eyes of the female characters, so their stories remain somewhat shrouded in mystery. But perhaps the most notable absence is Hae-on herself. As the victim that gives the story its purpose, she is the main character, but never speaks for herself, and we are never given a glimpse into what is going on inside her head; we only know what the other characters think of her. In the end, she is a cipher onto which they project their dreams and desires, their fears and insecurities.

The author has skillfully crafted a story that draws the reader in and maintains the suspense of a murder mystery as the fragments slowly but surely mesh. Yet as the picture emerges, we become ever more aware that the true mystery is how human beings deal with loss, tragedy and grief. We never lose sight of the horrible crime that occurred on a summer day in 2002, as the Korea-Japan World Cup drew to a close, but as time marches inexorably on with each chapter, ending 17 years later in 2019, we realize that no “solution” to the mystery will change things for the survivors. For Da-on, Sanghui and Taerim, the journey will never end, at least not until they join Hae-on on the other side of the line that separates the living from the dead. And when the last page has been turned, neither will this story end in the minds of its readers. The questions – and the answers that we all must find – will continue to haunt us.

‘Tiger Swallowtail’

By Hwang Gyu-gwan Translated by Jeon Seung-hee 111 pages, 9,500 won, Paju: ASIA Publishers [2021]

Poems for Souls Longing for a New World

“I have long thought about how poems can change our actual world,” writes Hwang Gyu-gwan in an essay at the end of this new collection of his poems. He does not write merely to ref lect on life and the world around him, but to make a real difference. He is not optimistic about the direction our world is taking, and he sees modern capitalist society as a bane rather than a boon. In his poetry, capitalism stands in stark contrast and opposition to nature in particular; in “Let’s Set the Forests Free,” for example, he argues for the removal of human civilization from the forests, ultimately calling for them to be “our new lords” and we “their foolish subjects.”

Perhaps the most urgent picture of our endangered environment can be found in the opening lines of the titular poem: “The rainy season does not end; the sea is boiling; Alarmed, glaciers are crashing down, and continents burn.” But the poet refuses to wallow in hopelessness and despair, instead seeking a radical way forward. His two poems about roads, one borrowing Frost’s famous (though often misquoted) title and the other singing of a “road newly taken” (“Toward the Direction of Daybreak”), speak to this journey. Hwang’s poems have many layers that do not surrender all of their secrets easily, but they will reward the careful reader and the soul longing for a new, changed world.

Seoul 4K Walker

YouTube http://www.youtube.com/c/seoul4k

A Perfect Cure for Your Pandemic Blues

As the COVID pandemic enters its third year, many are yearning to travel the world again. Perhaps you’ve never been to Korea but you’re curious. (You must be if you picked up this magazine!) Or maybe you’ve been to Korea before and wish you could go back. You might even be here already, but unable to travel around the country as much as you did before. This YouTube channel could be just what you need. Launched in the summer of 2020, it’s the perfect antidote to your pandemic blues.

Most of the walks offered here are of course located in Seoul, giving viewers a glimpse into everyday street scenes in the bustling metropolis. Gangnam in particular is recommended, if you’re curious about what “Gangnam style” really looks like. But there are numerous videos filmed outside of Seoul as well. Haeundae Beach in Busan, the romantic night streets of the seaport Yeosu, the traditional hanok houses of Jeonju and Hwaseong Fortress in Suwon are just a few of the many highlights. Without question, nearly all of the videos are in 4K, making them perfect for viewing on larger screens as well. Experience for yourself the colorful and vibrant scenes of Seoul and beyond throughout Korea.

Charles La Shure Professor, Department of Korean Language and Literature, Seoul National University


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