[Review] The Edge of Youth: b, Book, and Me by Apple Kim
- onMarch 15, 2020
- Vol.47 Spring 2020
- byJanice Lee
- b, Book, and Me
Tr. Sunhee Jeong 2020160pp.
b, Book, and Me by Kim Sagwa is a haunting and complex portrayal of teenage angst in today’s modern society, of the extreme but ill-equipped morality that manifests inside that sharp edge between youth and adulthood. This edge, dangerous and invisible, manifests in the particular friendship between b and Rang, and in the geography that binds them. Neglected by their parents, disliked by their teachers, and bullied by boys in identical baseball hats, b and Rang find themselves alone. b is poor and Rang is not poor. b cries and Rang doesn’t cry and never will. b has a sick sister and Rang has a grandmother who only eats sweets. These differences initially remain superficial, and the two girls find solace only in the other. They hang out regularly at a café called Alone (even when together, they are alone), and go to the beach where they reflect on the strength and interconnectedness of the ocean.
In one instance, b describes: “We got wet. The two of us, we both got exactly equally wet.” The wetness of the ocean unites the two of them, flattens the differences of class and emotion (or lack of emotion), and at least briefly, mutes the isolation they both feel in this strange and artificial city by the sea. The water, perhaps a sort of symbol of escape, is also a body of fluidic uncertainty, of fear and the unknown. The girls fantasize about the possibility of becoming fish, of going into the water and never coming back out, while in contrast “adults don’t think about the ocean even when they watch it. Their minds are full of other things.”
When Rang unintentionally betrays b by telling their class about b’s poverty and dying sister in a writing assignment, a marked fissure forms between the two of them. The edge reinforces itself: the unnamed city on the coast at the edge of land and water, the edge of being poor and not poor (the city itself is divided along class lines, and beyond the borders of where regular, civilized people dwell lies the part of the town called The End, a place of ruin and reverse myth), the edge of friendship, the edge of morality, the edge of youth and adulthood. The girls are more desperately alone than they were before, and further, aren’t even able to understand the depths of their own inabilities to understand their plights in the first place. Even at the moment of the betrayal when it seems that the morality of the situation is clear (the entire class and teacher react obviously in response to Rang’s “honesty”), Rang is unable to realize the gravity of her actions. “I couldn’t cry because I didn’t understand why I should. No one told me why,” she thinks. We see the same event from b’s vantage point, who reveals the profound shame and sadness that she is continually carrying. b reflects on the inevitability of her own future after stealing money from her mother’s wallet (“But since I only have a thousand won, my sister will die, my mom will continue working at the factory, and I’ll grow up to be trash”) while also being infuriated at Rang, who is not poor, doesn’t cry, and has betrayed b, even after b has repeatedly helped Rang when she was bullied by the boys. b even moves to the extreme that perhaps she wants Rang to die, and in these disturbing and absurd responses, and the lack of nuance in their feelings for other people, we see evidence of their emotional immaturity, of an unsettling and fractured reality that is unflinchingly similar to our own.
As in her previous novel, Mina, Kim skillfully probes the relationship between the dangerous and existential angst of adolescents and the pressures of trying to survive in a globalist-capitalist world.
b, Book, and Me shows how these young girls, abandoned by the adults around them, are forced to endure the trials of entering adulthood without really understanding the stakes, or being given the tools to understand and/or desire this transformation. Instead, they only know to wait for adulthood with fear and resentment, this resentment aimed more pressingly at themselves as their lack of agency thrusts them into the uncomfortable and vulnerable situation of trying to exert some semblance of power over each other, and consequently, over themselves.
Apple Kim has published five novels, one short story collection, and two essay collections. She received a grant from the Arts Council Korea in 2007 to travel to the US and Europe, during which time she wrote her first novel Mina. The French edition of Mina was later published by Decrescenzo éditeurs. Her works have appeared in the Asia Literary Review.