With its opening scene of a hard-boiled interrogation of murder suspect Han Manu, Lemon seems to be setting the reader up for yet another rote exercise in crime fiction. And the reader follows the cues, according to convention: skeptically receiving the detective’s attributions of guilt to a clearly confused Manu, suspecting that the murder of the teenage girl that has taken place will prove to be anything but a clear-cut case—and, still, satiated with the requisite hunger to plunge onward, with the promise of more clues to be unveiled shortly in the course of what is, after all, a refreshingly thin novel.
As we move beyond its opening pages, it becomes apparent that Lemon, the first book by South Korean author Kwon Yeo-sun to be translated into English, is anything but genre fiction. A cast of three takes turns narrating its eight chapters, spanning twenty-seven years, beginning with the murder of eighteen-year-old Kim Hae-on in 2002. There’s Da-on, the younger sister of the victim Hae-on, who—as part of her grieving process—undergoes plastic surgery to more closely resemble her deceased sibling; Sanghui, Da-on’s classmate, whose narration gives us a more distanced depiction of these characters’ fraught interactions; and Taerim, whose jealous prodding of her now-husband, then-boyfriend Shin Jeongju implies that he is likely the real culprit, though protected from the legal consequences of his guilt by dint of his class privilege.
What comes to matter more are not the details of the unsolved case itself, but the psychological after-effects that have afflicted all the surviving characters in the intervening years; their reflections, their experiences of lost innocence, form a delicately woven tapestry of voices grappling with doubt and the meaning of lives lived beneath the cloud of uncertainty.
The monologistic, stream-of-consciousness form—surely inspired by James Joyce, whose Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is referred to by Da-on and Sanghui as the two discuss their neglected literary aspirations—allows for a rhythmical unfurling of details that a more traditional crime novel would have served up as a cold platter early on; for instance, it is only in the third chapter, which takes place eight years after the incident, that Da-on reflects on the startling realization that her sister had not returned home the night before her murder and neither she nor her mother had noticed. For those haunted by the death of loved ones, such weird lapses of awareness are not uncommon; the shock wrought by devastation and the uncomprehending nature that is at the heart of most tragedy work to alter our perception of the events as they are occurring in real time and severely fragment the ways they later play out in our memory. If Lemon has a thesis, it is that after a confrontation with the unthinkable, the psychic turmoil of sense-making requires its own language.
Perhaps such a proposal would be less compelling without Kwon’s sparse, lyrical prose (in Janet Hong’s translation), enabling even descriptions of banal occurrences to assume a poetic gravitas:
I turned off the stove and placed the eggs in cold water. Since I couldn’t tap the egg to break the shell, I peeled it by rolling it gently on the table. The late afternoon sun that spilled in through the living room window revealed a layer of dust on the table. I took a bite, and tasted the soft white and jammy yolk. I glanced down. The yolk glistened in the light. I couldn’t help thinking how lovely it looked.
Is a spoiler alert required before noting that nothing is completely resolved in the end? Or, to put it more succinctly: nothing is resolved neatly. Which is precisely why Lemon fails as an illustration of generic detective fiction. Where it succeeds, however, is as a work of art, which is by necessity a mystery inherently unsolvable.