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By Oyinkan Braithwaite
By Kwon Yeo-sun
Translated by Janet Hong
Kim Hae-on is beautiful, young, female — and dead. It is the summer of 2002, the FIFA World Cup draws to a close and Hae-on’s body is discovered in the flower bed of a park in Seoul.
At first glance, Kwon Yeo-sun’s “Lemon” appears to be your typical whodunit; much of its first chapter is dedicated to an interview between detective and suspect. But then Kwon directs the reader’s attention elsewhere. Yes, by the end, the reader will know who the killer is, but that knowledge takes a back seat in this poignant tale.
A taut novella in eight vignettes, “Lemon” is not so much narrated as spilled, confessed, blurted out in the alternating voices of three women recalling a tragedy that took place when they were in high school. The first and most central of these is Da-on, Hae-on’s younger sister.
Da-on and her mother cope with their loss in bizarre ways, their grief awkward and somewhat hopeless. Hae-on’s mother goes to great lengths to change the name of her dead daughter back to her birth name, Hye-eun, for “she seemed to think my sister’s life had gone wrong because of the name change.” And in her own warped tribute, Da-on undergoes plastic surgery in order to more closely resemble her stunning dead sister.
Hae-on’s good looks are praised throughout, Kwon relying heavily on the literary motif of the comely, virginal victim. As with many of the slain fictional women who came before her, the specter of Hae-on is profoundly romanticized, her demise all the more tragic because of how attractive she was. “My sister was beautiful,” Da-on says. “Unforgettably so. She was perfection, bliss personified. But more than anything, she was at that mythical age: 18. Who dared destroy her lovely form?”
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The second narrator, Hae-on’s classmate Sanghui, admits that there wasn’t much to say about Hae-on beyond her “absolute, staggering beauty.” She contrasts this with her warm memories of Da-on, who “brimmed with passion and curiosity. She was pleasant and savvy in all her dealings, but most of all, she laughed more than anyone.” Da-on addresses Sanghui as “eonni” — a term reserved for older women and girls whom one feels closest to, and it is through Sanghui’s lens that we witness Da-on’s stark physical and mental transformations.
Da-on’s grief is twofold: She mourns the loss of Hae-on even as she asks herself if she ever loved her aloof, unreadable sister. “She did nothing and thought nothing,” Da-on thinks. “She considered no one and harmed no one.” When Da-on finally resurfaces from a period of grieving she describes as “plummeting down a deep well,” her first desire is for revenge. She seeks out the prime suspect, a man named Han Manu, and finds a life riddled with tragedy.
Yun Taerim, the third narrator and another classmate of Hae-on’s, is a woman saddled with a secret. She tries to unburden herself via staccato yet rambling monologues, unable to say the one thing that might free her. She teases the reader with information and then flip-flops like a fish on a slab.
Kwon takes advantage of the multiple perspectives at her disposal. What one narrator sees as a kindness, another shows to be an act of necessity; what one assumes is solicitation is later revealed to be reckless. To Sanghui, it is amusing how Da-on would inspect her sister’s uniform every day while her own blouse was stained; later Da-on explains that she had to be diligent because Hae-on often forgot to put on underwear. These “discoveries” are for the reader’s benefit. As is sometimes the case in life, the narrators are never disabused of the notions they hold.
They exist more as vehicles through which the story is told than as flesh-and-blood individuals. A reader would be hard pressed to pinpoint their internal attributes or quirks. But the story is told so vividly and poetically that it doesn’t suffer much for this lack of insight.
“Lemon” is easy to devour in one sitting, but my advice is: Don’t. I was so focused on the murder that I almost missed another mystery unfolding right before my eyes. “Lemon” should be read slowly and closely in order to appreciate it when Kwon pulls off what I can describe only as a sleight of hand. She plants bread crumbs that reward the attentive reader, and make for an especially enjoyable second read. Fortunately, it is short enough to begin all over again.
An expansion on Kwon’s 2016 short story “You Do Not Know,” “Lemon” is the South Korean author’s first book to be published in English. In Janet Hong’s translation, Kwon’s writing is masterly. Her sentences are crisp, concise and potent; just one contains as much meaning as two or three of your average storyteller’s. Da-on recalls her father’s frustration at a broken cigarette exquisitely: “After living a mundane, dull life, where a trivial incident like this was cause enough for him to become angry, he died.” Her hypnotic effect will stay with the reader long after the last page has been read. You’ll wish there were more; but you’ll be grateful it ended as it did.
“Lemon,” much like the fruit, is a bright, intense, refreshing story.
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