Yu-jin wakes up after a late night out smelling blood. It turns out he’s caked in it and there are bloody footprints all over the floor. He staggers downstairs and finds a body. His mother’s body.
So starts The Good Son, a psychological thriller from Korean writer Jeong You-jeong, whose books have reportedly sold than one million copies in Korea; although already in available in French and German (including having a previous novel named one of the top ten crime novels of 2015 by the German newspaper Die Zeit), to say nothing of Chinese and Japanese, this is her first work available in English.
The novel is cleverly plotted and constructed, but it is, alas, impossible to discuss the story-line without giving something away. The first murder, suffice it to say, is only the first door of many in a novel full of psychological twists and turns, false starts and culs-de-sac.
The first of Jeong’s techniques to become apparent is that of leading the reader down the garden path. It takes live-at-home law student Yu-jin several dozen pages to realise what the reader knows almost immediately: that he is the one who has done his mother in. Just as one begins to think Yu-Jin’s obliviousness has gone on quite long enough, Jeong opens a door into a different closet of her protagonist’s mind. She performs this trick several times in the novel; I fell for it every time.
If a Korean novel finally makes it into the English-language mainstream, it might just be this one.
In a literary universe full of unreliable narrators, Yu-Jin must be most unreliable. His memory is periodically wiped and his story is full of flashbacks, the significance or even veracity of which isn’t usually clear at the time. The fragmented, and at times discombobulating, structure of the novel reflects Yu-Jin’s own mental state.
While there is rather too much reliance on a journal to fill in some gaps, the novel nonetheless pulls one along—such suspension of disbelief as is necessary comes easily— as one is pulled deeper into Yu-Jin’s mind than is entirely comfortable. Jeong makes him seem disconcertingly rational. If this were a movie, Yu-Jin might be played by (a younger) Anthony Hopkins.
And that illustrates one of the most striking things about The Good Son: some references to bulgogi, kimchi, Incheon and Korean names aside, there seems nothing “Asian” about the novel at all. Change a few proper nouns here and there, and this could—almost without any other changes—be New Jersey or Sussex. Indeed, insofar as there are pop-culture references, these are (somewhat obscurely) Western, e.g. Vangelis’s “Conquest of Paradise”, Kristen Stewart, “The Bucket List”, etc. But these are obscure enough that one supposes that they appear in the original and aren’t the result of translationary whim.
It is possible that this impression is an artifact of an (extremely successful) attempt at translation into fluent English—sometimes perhaps overly fluent, as when Yu-Jin says “What the hell, man”—but The Good Son shows none of the sense of place found in, say, the similarly blood-soaked and colloquially-translated novels of the Japanese writer Natsuo Kirino.
Whether this is good or bad, I can’t say. It is certainly unexpected and somewhat discomfiting, for Yu-Jin is not, despite his name, “foreign” in any way at all; indeed, he might be living next door.
Translated novels rarely make into the English-language commercial mainstream. If a Korean novel finally does, it might just be this one.