“Seven Years of Darkness” by Jeong You-jeong

Jeong You-Jeong Jeong You-Jeong

Jeong You-jeong’s Seven Years of Darkness opens in 2011 with young Choi Sowon living in Lighthouse Village, South Korea. The place is so remote GPS can’t locate it and so out of date that the president of its youth-club is sixty-one years old.

Sowon resides off the grid on purpose. In the years since the horrible events referred to as the “Seryong Lake Disaster”, he has been shunted house to house, school to school. When people find out he’s the offspring of Choi Hyonsu, the man imprisoned for the disaster, he has to skip town. All his attempts to remain unknown are curiously foiled.

Reputations, especially ones as awful as this one, have a certain permanence:

 

To them, I was the son of a crazed murderer who had killed an eleven-year-old girl and her father, thrown his own wife into the river, and then opened the floodgates of the dam … drowning four police officers and wiping out nearly half the town.

Those unfamiliar with Jeong might already be aware of the book’s translator, Kim Chi-young, whose work on the excellent Please Look After Mom introduced much of the English-reading world to Korean literature.

The main action of the book, first published in Korean in 2011, begins after Sowon’s identity is again discovered and he receives an anonymous package. Its contents—including a USB drive and a paper manuscript—help him understand the catastrophe and his father’s role in it. At the same time, he also begins to learn that, seven years on, his life might still be in danger.

Written by his only friend, Ahn Sunghwan, the manuscript takes up more than three-quarters of the 336-page Seven Years of Darkness. Points of view shift methodically in the third-person narrative to illustrate how characters experience and interpret many of the same events before and after the discovery of a girl in Seryong Lake. It attempts to challenge the notion that Hyonsu, whose injury-shortened baseball career haunts his life, is a “crazed murderer”.

Sowon, who narrates the remainder of the book, is initially puzzled how Sunghwan could enter the minds of several characters—including the girl’s unaccountably violent father Yongje—without using artistic license. And if it is just a work of imagination, it would be almost useless for him. He has more pressing things to think about, like his father’s imminent execution.

Yet, for reasons that become clear, he reads on.

 Seven Years of Darkness would be a fine introduction as well.

Seven Years of Darkness, Jeong You-jeong, Chi-Young Kim (trans) (Little, Brown, May 2020; Penguin, June 2020)
Seven Years of Darkness, Jeong You-jeong, Chi-Young Kim (trans) (Little, Brown, May 2020; Penguin, June 2020)

Those unfamiliar with Jeong might already be aware of the book’s translator, Kim Chi-young, whose work on the excellent Please Look After Mom introduced a lot of the English-reading world to Korean literature.

Seven Years of Darkness would be a fine introduction as well. Although the novel within the novel is perhaps too long, the writing throughout Seven Years of Darkness, which was made into a movie in 2018, is fluid, crisp and, when it wants to be, disturbing. It fits into the popular psychological thriller genre, although in places it transcends it. At heart, it’s the story of a son coming to terms with the virtues and vices of his father (with a genre-appropriate lunatic on his tail).

Scenes depicting his father’s baseball career and parents’ peculiar courtship—in which the classic American movie Bull Durham plays a big role—touchingly offset the book’s darker passages.

In the author’s note at the end of Seven Years of Darkness, Jeong writes that there is an unavoidable “gray area between fact and truth” that is “uncomfortable and confusing”. This novel, she says, is about that gray area.

Sowon, like the reader, has been given the facts so he can get closer to the truth. There will be no easy answers for anyone.


Timothy Sifert is a Hong Kong-based journalist.