Loss Is the Tie that Binds: I'll be Right There by Shin Kyung-sook

  • onNovember 16, 2014
  • Vol.24 Summer 2014
  • bySora Kim-Russell
I’ll Be Right There
Tr. Sora Kim-Russell

A woman receives a phone call early one morning informing her that a beloved college professor is dying. The jolt of this impending loss sends her tumbling back into memories of her youth, when her life and the lives of her friends were transformed by loss. She begins with the now eight-year-long loss of a lover and then vaults us back to the beginning, to the loss of her mother. Jung Yoon, the narrator of Shin Kyung-sook’s latest novel, I’ll Be Right There, recounts how she was sent to live in Seoul while still a teenager, as her dying mother believed that letting go was better than holding on. In so doing, Yoon loses not only her mother but also her childhood friend, Dahn, who moves to another city for college and soon drops out to join the military. After her mother’s death, Yoon locks herself up in her room, trapped in the grief her mother hoped to prevent. When she finally returns to school, she meets the lighthearted Myungsuh and mysterious Miru. One day, Yoon is caught in the middle of a demonstration as it is being put down by riot police and has to accept help from Myungsuh. This moment of violence marks the start of their friendship and their explorations of the quieter corners of a city under siege.

Though the novel’s eventual epilogue contains uplifting notes of friendship and remembrance, this is not a light tale of how love and friendship can overcome loss and violence. Despite the hours the four friends spend together, they cannot be easily rescued from their grief. Even the professor who tries to inspire them to free themselves is haunted by his own regrets and missed opportunities. In the world of this novel, loss is the tie that binds, and not everyone survives the torment. For those who do survive, as Yoon discovers through a phone call, the past will catch up with you.

For readers of Shin’s best-selling Please Look After Mom, this book will be both familiar and new. Shin shows off her range between the two books while also treading familiar themes. Certain details have a way of returning in Shin’s works. Here, too, are night trains, the dazzle of Seoul, poetry and literature, the visceral pleasure of pulling a cluster of potatoes from the soil, country mothers, caring female cousins, that person in our lives that we wish we could hold onto just a moment longer but they are already lost… This recurrence is key to understanding Shin’s work. Those who’ve had the pleasure of reading A Secluded Room will recognize this. In it, she writes:

Maybe that’s what writing is. Maybe as long as you are writing, no time is past. Perhaps, like salmon shredding their fins as they swim back up the cataract they once traveled down, those who write are fated to flow against the current by revisiting painful memories in the present tense. Salmon return. Even as they guard their wounds, they risk their lives however they must to swim back up the cataract and return to the beginning—yes, to return. Following a path already traveled, feeling for the tracks they left, retracing the same road over and over.

Shin is an obsessive writer in the best sense of the term. Her writing is unremittingly haunted and haunting, circling back to wounds that refuse to heal, to grievances that refuse to be appeased, never quite describing the horror itself but lingering over the details of the objects and instruments of torment.

This sense of obsession and recurrence was something I sought to preserve while translating I’ll Be Right There. Repetition is often treated as an obstacle to be eliminated from English so that the story may move forward unimpeded, but grief, by its nature, resists forward motion—it goes where it has to go and lingers if it must. How interesting then that one of the most repeated elements of the book is water. It figures into nearly every scene, from snow to fog to rain to steam to waves to wells to canals and, finally, to its absence. Even the verbs Shin uses mirrors this obsession. Words are not just sound waves, they also drip and seep and ripple, dry up, pool, and overflow. It is this behavior of water that shapes the momentum of the book, sometimes freezing in place, sometimes scattering into droplets, and sometimes surging forward.

I’ll Be Right There is, of course, a Korean novel, but it is perhaps best understood as a distinctly Shin Kyung-sook novel, for it is Shin’s watery landscape that the reader must traverse. And circle. And return to, again and again. But as Shin knows intimately, there is as much pleasure as there is pain in the returning. Hers was a book that showed more of itself to me the longer I worked on it, and I hope that readers will enjoy the same unfolding of meaning. 


by Sora Kim-Russell


Author's Profile

Shin Kyung-sook is a writer. Born in Jeongeub, North Jeolla Province in 1963. She made her literary debut in 1985 when her novella "A Winter Fable" won the Munye Joongang Literary Award for Best First Novel. She is the author of seven short story collections, including The Blind CalfThe Sound of BellsUnknown Women, and Moonlight Tales, and seven novels, including An Isolated RoomLee JinPlease Look After Mom, and I'll Be Right There. She has received a number of prestigious literary awards at home and abroad, including the Yi Sang Literary Award, the Dongin Prize, the Hyundae Munhak Award, Prix de l'Inapercu, and the Man Asian Literary Prize.