On the morning of his 43rd birthday, celebrated artist Lee Hanjo wakes up hungover and alone. His loving devoted wife is gone, only leaving behind the draft of a novel. To Hanjo’s horror, the book tells the story of an artist in his early 40s and his affair with a possibly underage girl. This manuscript will ruin him, but his mind is drawn back to a summer years before when the death of another girl changed his life.
Broken Summer, JM Lee’s latest work translated into English, revolves around the mysterious death of 19-year-old Jang Jisoo, the eldest daughter of the wealthy, powerful Jang family which had employed Hanjo’s family as their domestic servants and groundskeepers. Her disappearance and later discovery dead set in motion the plot of the novel, which follows memories of the event from the perspective of members of both families, and follows the lifelong ripples of this single event as they fan out through the lives of those connected to it. As for Lee Hanjo himself:
The people of the city knew him well. The old people who recognized him while out walking would acknowledge him with a passing glance. Young parents told their children in a low voice that they should try to become a great person like him. When the children asked who he was, the parents replied that he was a painter named Lee Hanjo, who was famous for his wedge paintings. Three of his works, they would proudly add, were hanging in the city hall lobby.
Beyond a simple murder case and an exploration of the effects of a singular trauma on the remainder of a life, Broken Summer explores the mind’s memory-authoring process, mixing truth and self-created fiction, until the reality of an event is muddied. Each character remembers the disappearance in their own way. Each only knew a part of the story, but filled in the rest over the years, settling on an interpretation of that fateful day, regardless of its connection to actual events. Their settled narrative then shaped their life, either through decades spent trying to forget or trying to seek a vengeful justice.
Rather than wasting his life searching for the truth, he chose to believe the lie. Truth and all that stuff … just living was difficult enough.
Author Lee sets the evolution of the character’s memories against the personal influences of class and privilege through the character’s perception of their place in society. The principal characters come from opposite ends of the social spectrum, one family rich and upwardly mobile, the other struggling financially and haunted by alcoholism. Hanjo and his brother longed to escape their humble origins as the poor sons of a caretaker and later convicted murderer, while the Jang family seems to float through the world unbothered by the happenings of those without their privilege.
This book’s shifting narrative forms a subtle yet beautiful meditation on how we view society and events in our lives from our own subjective vantage points. What may seem like injustice or serendipity might, from another’s perspective, merely be the end result of a well-thought-out plan. And when a girl disappears, our unique point of view becomes a piece in an ultimately unsolvable puzzle that will only have form when viewed from an individual, often clouded perspective.
Blue letters were written on thick A4 paper: Your Lies About Me. It was her familiar handwriting. He remembered his wife once saying she was writing about him. At the time, it had sounded so natural. If someone was going to write a book about him, that person had to be his wife. No one else knew him as well as she did.
Broken Summer, translated by An Seon Jae, is ostensibly a murder mystery, but instead leaves the reader pondering the psychological impacts a single event can have on a life, and how the remembrance of events is shaped by incomplete knowledge and by our place in society’s pecking order. The evolution of Hanjoo’s memories of the murder throughout the book challenges the honesty of his perspective and invites one to consider what he really thought, what truth, if any, there was in those ever-fading memories, and whether they were ever really true in the first place.
Patrick McShane is the Editor-in-Chief of the online literary journal Hwæl-Weġ.