If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim
Spanning from 1951 to 1967, If You Leave Me shifts between the perspectives of three people who start out as teenaged refugees living in Busan. Haemi and Kyunghwan, both 16 years old, are best friends who grew up in the same village on the eastern coast of Korea. Fearing the approach of North Korean soldiers, Haemi had fled the village with her widowed mother and sickly younger brother, while Kyunghwan fled with his alcoholic widower father. Kyunghwan's 18-year-old cousin Jisoo, who comes from a much wealthier family in Seoul, had been sent to Busan alone. Haemi is in love with Kyunghwan, and they routinely sneak out past curfew to go barhopping and talk about what their lives have become. However, Jisoo decides to pursue Haemi as well and even proposes marriage. Despite normally being quite strong-willed, when faced with pressure from her mother and her brother's worsening condition, Haemi agrees to marry Jisoo so that her family will have a more secure chance of surviving the war. Jisoo enlists in the ROK military immediately after the wedding, and Kyunghwan is pressured by his father to do the same, and so the trio are separated starting in 1951.
What follows are multiple reunions and separations, with misunderstandings and missed opportunities aplenty, as each character grows into an adult and learns to survive both during and after the war. With an injured arm, Jisoo returns to Haemi and her family back near her hometown in 1953, and he finds his footing as an exploitative landowner and businessman. Kyunghwan moves to Seoul after the war and works menial jobs until he eventually makes a decent living for himself in sales. Haemi, who had once dreamed of pursuing an education, is unhappy and struggling with the expectations of being a wife and mother at such a young age. She exhibits signs of PTSD and other mental illnesses that only worsen as time goes on; Jisoo is less than understanding and she has no friends to rely on. Outside of taking care of her children, Haemi has nothing to do but turn the past over and over in her mind. What went wrong, how things could have been different. If only she and Kyunghwan had had the chance to be together. If only the war hadn't distorted their youth. After an unexpected letter arrives for Kyunghwan in Seoul, he goes to visit Haemi and Jisoo (well, really just Haemi) and the trio are together in 1963 for the first time in 12 years.That's when the somewhat stable and cohesive facade of their adult lives begins to unravel.
I joked with my friend who recommended Kyung-Sook Shin's Please Look After Mom to me that If You Leave Me is considerably more devastating of a novel. And with its multi-perspective approach, multiple female narrators, and long-suffering matriarchs, there are some similarities between the two. But with its intimate examination of war and the detrimental impact that average Korean people faced, I'd say that If You Leave Me is actually more similar to Min Jin Lee's Pachinko. In fact, if someone wanted to learn about Korean political and economic history from around 1910 to the late 1980s through novels, Pachinko, If You Leave Me, and Han Kang's Human Acts fit together quite well chronologically. (I'm sure there's a wide array of selections to choose from; I'm just basing this suggestion on books that I've read so far.) If you enjoy reading about love triangles, tragic love stories, the Korean War or Korean history in general, are interested in refugee experiences, have ever been called "crazy" when you really just lacked support, or have ever wondered about "the one that got away", then read this book! You might need a hug afterward, though.
"I wished I were alone—in the ditch, or on the hillside still looking for herbs. Even on the open sea. But I hadn't been allowed the space or time or means to truly be by myself in years, and we were far from home" (59).
"I realized we were lurching toward a new world... where Americans would never leave us alone, where they didn't simply provide us with money, but with their ways of living as well. We weren't rebuilding. We were shaping ourselves into a different form. I felt duped by my own blindness. Like a man who doesn't know he's soaked until halfway through a creeping storm" (189-190).
The Fisher King by Paule Marshall
Eight-year-old Sonny spends much of his time becoming acquainted with his great grandmothers on both sides. Ulene, Sonny-Rett's mother, is a stubborn Caribbean woman with dementia who makes clear who she likes and who she doesn't. The person she dislikes the most (and the feeling is mutual) is Florence Varina, Cherisse's mother and Sonny's other great-grandmother, a Brooklyn native with roots in Georgia via The Great Migration. As such, at least four different shades of the African diaspora are presented to readers at once. Hattie as the Black American expat in Paris, Sonny as the French-born Black boy, Florence Varina as the Black American one generation removed from the deep South, and Ulene as the Caribbean immigrant. Edgar serves as Hattie and Sonny's guide during their two-week stay leading up to the concert, but Hattie is extremely protective and rarely lets Sonny get too far away from her for too long.
In all honesty, not being dramatic at all, I feel like this is one of those books that I was always meant to read. I originally picked it at the mall book sale because it was written by a Black woman, the back cover told me that the story involved Black people and jazz, and Paris, France was in the mix somehow. And much like Black Girl in Paris, I saw so much of myself in this book. But even more so, because Hattie and Sonny live just one arrondissement over from where I was when I stayed in Paris. They live in the 17th; I lived in the 8th (near the edge between the 8th and the 17th), and did an internship in the 17th. Hattie even mentions Avenue de Clichy, which is part of my old neighborhood (near Place de Clichy)! There are other Parisian sites mentioned that are a familiar to me, but when Avenue de Clichy came up, I knew that this book was meant for me. Or rather, as I said, I was meant to read it.
Additionally, I can't say enough about how masterfully Paule Marshall flips the script in the very last chapter, after the memorial concert has ended. While most of the novel until this point focuses on innocent, artistic, slightly judgemental Sonny being exposed to Brooklyn and his relatives, with recollections thrown in from both him and Hattie regarding their less-than-fabulous life in Paris, the last chapter is all about Edgar confronting Hattie with what his true motives are. I had been giving Hattie the benefit of the doubt as Sonny's caretaker and the one who reveals the most about her, Sonny-Rett, and Cherisse's past, so it wasn't until this chapter that I realized how unreliable her perspective actually is. Something had seemed a little off all along, and with the final chapter I was finally seeing all the characters with clear eyes, and then the book ended just like that. We're presented with what's really at stake, but then don't witness the full fallout. And while I might have been annoyed with seemingly-abrupt endings in the past (Beale Street comes to mind), with The Fisher King I really don't mind it at all. If you're interested in Brooklyn, Paris, jazz history, non-traditional relationships, the Black diaspora, Black family histories, or literature written by Black women, then read this book!
"You got some of all of us in you, dontcha? What you gonna do with all that Colored from all over creation you got in you? Better be somethin' good" (36).
"her wonderfully complicated, inexplicable self, proving to him, as she did each time they were together, that even an ordinary, unremarkable body such as hers possessed a kind of music, its own rhythms, harmonies, tonalities, crescendos—more than one, and that, at times her special music had the power to leave him in tears afterward..." (195).
"If you love him for himself, more than for something or someone you might be trying to hold on to through him, you'll give him a chance" (219).
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