My 2011 Star Tribune review called Kyung-sook Shin’s novel in translation, “Please Look After Mom,” “transcendent” and a “loving gift to readers.” Her new novel, “I’ll Be Right There,” represents a second loving gift from this South Korean novelist, though a slightly less accomplished one. At times Shin’s characters seem a bit precious, and the narrative dawdles toward the end. However, the book’s many beautiful moments are moving.
“I’ll Be Right There” occurs during the tumultuous 1980s and early 1990s in South Korea. With “the long dictatorship of the Park Chung-hee regime” over, riot police now quash protests against “a new dictatorship.” When 20-year-old Jung Yoon arrives in Seoul to begin university studies, landmarks such as the Sungnyemun Gate have been destroyed. Tear gas drifts on the air. She and others receive upsetting phone calls. Wrong numbers from strangers about strangers, the calls make no sense. “I have to find Ji-Su,” one caller pleads. Another, before bursting into tears, asks for Jungmin. “A lot of people were searching for someone.”
Disoriented by the political unrest while at the same time mourning her mother’s death in the country, Jung Yoon studies halfheartedly, preferring to explore the city. When she meets Myungsuh, an activist, and Miru, his girlfriend, the three try to shield one another from the violence that surrounds them. How have Miru’s hands been so terribly burned? How could her sister’s boyfriend have disappeared like many others? The missing turn up drowned or run over by trains. Some are never found.
In lyrical interludes, Shin tempers the nightmarish city life with the bucolic country life Yoon knows. When her father transplants a crepe myrtle tree from the front yard to his wife’s grave, for instance, “the crimson blossoms alighted on the green grass of her grave like butterflies.” When Yoon and Myungsuh visit their professor/mentor in the mountains, once again breathing fresh air, they help him disburden the pines of snow.
During fearful, lawless times, not only does nature abide, but so, too, do spiritual faith and human kindness endure. When people are hurt or killed, others like Jung Yoon carry on the struggle for democracy. Without such people in real life, Shin writes in an author’s note, “South Korea would not be what it is today.”
Several times the author invokes the legend of St. Christopher carrying travelers across a flooded river. In a farewell letter, the professor calls his students “my Christophers.” Later, when Yoon herself lectures on the saint’s legend, a student inquires, “Does that mean we are Saint Christopher? Or are we the child he carries?” In this inspiring novel, Kyung-sook Shin argues that, faced with treachery, the moral person can be carrier and Christ to others.
Anthony Bukoski, a short-story writer, lives in Superior, Wis.