Kwon Yeo-sun, Lemon, tr. Janet Hong, Head of Zeus 2021 
First line: I imagine what happened inside one police interrogation room so many years ago.
This opening line is narrated by a young woman called Da-on, as she reflects on her beautiful older sister’s murder in Seoul on 1 July 2002.
There are two prime suspects, both of whom attended the same high school as victim Hae-on: Shin Jeongjun, the privileged son of wealthy parents, and Han Manu, the son of an impoverished single mum. But while the mystery of what happened to the nineteen-year-old girl is a powerful component in the narrative, its main focus is the impact of Hae-on’s death on those closest to her – her sister, her mother, her classmate. We are shown events unfolding largely through female eyes, in eight pithily titled chapters spanning from 2002 (‘Shorts’) to 2019 (‘Dusk’).
Here’s Da-on, for example, on the early trauma of her sister’s death:
Since both Mother and I were falling at a very slow speed, I didn't realise we were falling at first.
The women’s grief and their struggle to fill the gap left by the dead girl are very finely drawn. Da-on embarks on two highly original strategies in this respect, each of which ultimately comes with a price – both to her and others – in the seventeen long years following Hae-on’s death.
Interwoven with all this is the theme of class, which is front and centre in other recent examples of crime-inflected South Korean culture, from the Oscar-winning film Parasite to Netflix hits Squid Game and Signal. We’re shown a justice system that’s stacked against those from less well-off backgrounds, and how the rich have more options due to their connections and wealth.
Lemon is a beguiling, unsettling, worthwhile read, which also offers some fascinating glimpses into South Korean culture thanks to Janet Hong’s sensitive and attentive translation.
If you’re interested in finding out more about Kwon Yeo-sun’s work, there’s an interesting interview with her over at Korean Literature Now.
This does sound compelling, Mrs. P.! And I couldn’t agree with you more about the importance of a high-quality translation in conveying a layered plot and memorable characters. It sounds like a novel that stays with the reader…
Hi Margot – it is indeed a many-layered narrative and is the kind of slightly disquieting novel that stays with the reader. And I really liked Janet Hong’s translation, because (as a translator) I could see how tricky some passages probably were to deal with. There’s a portion on the differences between two almost identical sounding Korean first names and the act of naming itself, which I found fascinating.