I'll Be Right There by Kyung-Sook Shin
What, to paraphrase Junot Diaz, is the half-life of heartbreak? How strong are the threads of young love, romantic or otherwise? How stiffly do they stand up to the passage of time, to the vagaries of memory? "The past is never dead," goes a famous line from Faulkner's Requiem for a Nun. "It's not even past." For the central characters of Korean novelist Kyung-Sook Shin's I'll Be Right There, the past is never dead; the events of the past are remembered in such fullness that they overwhelm the present. After eight years of silence, an ex-boyfriend calls to tell Jung Yoon that their beloved college professor, whose class first brought them together, was dying, a call that sends Yoon deep into memories of her university days. Set during the height of political turmoil in South Korea in the 1980s, I'll Be Right There revisits Yoon's intimate relationships with fellow students Yi Myungsuh and Yoon Miru and the unsealable wounds of their personal tragedies. The half-life of unhappy events, Shin's book reveals, is forever, but we don't always need to bury our histories so permanently in order to move forward with our lives.
I'll Be Right There contains splashes of Murakami's Norwegian Wood: sorrow-clouded young love, played out across a backdrop of an unsettled East Asian city, peppered with references to western literature and art. As Yoon and Myungsuh fall in love, Yoon also grows close to Myungsuh's longtime friend Miru, who is haunted by a terrible past involving her sister and her sister's boyfriend, and bears permanent (and very visible) scars from those events. Like Norwegian Wood, I'll Be Right There is suffused with nostalgia, yet also unsentimental; Shin's is brutal, even, in the way her characters confront loneliness, despair, illness, and suicide. Their main confrontations, though, are always with the past. After her mother's death, Yoon takes a leave of absence from university, unable to form any attachment to classes or people in her first year. Yoon recalls how she would still go to the hospital every Wednesday to pick up her mother's medicine, though her mother was already gone. "Mama, I'm back," she would tell herself. Yoon also struggles to acknowledge the fate of her childhood friend Dahn, who had entered military service, telling her friends that Dahn was "probably fine" though he was not and composing a letter to him detailing the places they'll visit "some day."
Thanks to Myungsuh and Miru, Yoon regains her interest in classes, particularly Professor Yoon's, and in exploring and absorbing all corners of the city that was so uninteresting to her in her earliest years living there. "Had I not met them where and when I did, how could I have made it through those days," Yoon wonders. Myungsuh and Miru, too, rely heavily on Yoon to relieve the weight of the past and to ease the hopelessness they feel towards the present. "Miru laughs now more because of Yoon," Myungsuh reveals in a diary entry. "The three of us sit together in [Professor Yoon's] class. Sometimes we stop by his office afterward. It's the first time I've ever seen Miru pay attention in class."
Though young, Yoon, Myungsuh, and Miru are often morbid (with so much death in their pasts, who can blame them?) and frequently nostalgic (again, who can blame them?). "When I was a child," their conversations would often begin. "When I was young." Memory is always the main point of reference, the engine of conversations. The first time Myungsuh tells Yoon he is in love with her, he confesses through the lens of a sad childhood memory, comparing his feelings for her to the joy, sorrow, and despair he had felt once when he found a baby sparrow that was then cooked and eaten by his older brothers. Yoon reciprocates later with a parallel story about drawing water from a well near her childhood home. The first time Miru and Yoon spend time together without Myungsuh, Miru opens up about her relationship with her sister, and the accident that drove a wedge between them. Through one tender scene after another, Shin shows us the comfort human connection offers, but because she also shows us the outcome eight years after the main events of the story, it's also a gentle warning that such intense relationships are not sustainable.
Unsurprisingly, Shin is strongest when she writes about the past and a bit too aphoristic when she writes from the present. Yoon, who is now a teacher, comes to one grand realization at the end of the book about her past that does not do justice to the complexity of her story, and the stories of her friends. Tangled in their personal histories, and in each other's histories, Shin's characters were believably confused. At once idealistic and disillusioned, they had so many more years to live, but never quite figured out what to live for. As Shin writes in her author's note, "we may be the protagonists of tragedy, but we are also the heroes of our most beautiful and thrilling experiences." In an honest tragic tale, which I'll Be Right There is, there can be no simple narrative of salvation, toward relief, there are just moments that can be later cherished, buried, or simply forgotten.
I'll Be Right There by Kyung-Sook Shin