Book Reviews

Meet Judith Rodby, Ph.D., Professor Emerita of English from CSU, Chico. Judith leads our monthly book club and is a voracious reader who enjoys connecting with fellow book lovers. Judith led The National Reading Initiative for the National Writing Project and has facilitated book clubs for children, adolescents, and adults. Be sure to check back frequently to learn about her latest favorites, and browse the archive for even more!

 

 

In late August 2018, the US news is replete with photos of tearful relatives being reunited across a divided Korean peninsula; reunions that have been postponed for decades are now staged for a meager 11 hours spread over three days.And so, very timely is Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel, If You Leave Me, a family saga taking place in Korea from 1951 until the late 1960’s.  The novel is told, in separate chapters, from the perspectives and voices of Haemi, whose thoughts and emotions are the main force of the novel, Kyunghwan her friend and childhood crush, both 16 as  the novel begins, Sijoo, who comes from a family with more financial and social stability than that of Haemi’s, which leads Haemi’s widowed mother to choose Sijoo as Haemi’s betrothed. Also helping to create transitions in time are the voices of Hyunki, Haemi’s tubercular brother, and finally Solee, one of Haemi’s daughters.  These voices and the lives from the north and south of Korea touch on the particulars of the Korean conflict(s) and terms such as 6-2-5 seed the text, but this is not a historical or political novel. At times, If You Leave Me languishes because it focuses on developing these characters, through the alternating chapters and voices, rather than on the movements of the narrative.

War, refugee camps, poverty and mental and physical illness are all factors tearing this family apart, rifts which hamper Haemi’s restoring her one fulfilling love. Though Kim provides many details of Korean culture  (slippery noodles, silvery sardines, and ribbons of red pepper paste, for example), they provide merely the background or frame for what is finally a love story that may be more human than specifically Korean.

 

 

 

Maybe it is my habit of watching Scandinavian crime shows on Netflix that lured me into The Forbidden Place. Or maybe I just found so much to like about its contexts: bogs and contemporary art and long nights of research and hikes with a thermos of coffee.  In any case, I was thoroughly drawn into The Forbidden Place, which is technically Susanne Jansson’s debut novel, even though she has published art criticism and crime stories in magazines for years.

This novel is a mystery, a mystery of multiples. Nathalie, a biologist, is beginning field experiments measuring greenhouse gasses in the bog and working long nights in a remote cottage on her dissertation.  She unwittingly comes to investigate the puzzle of Johannes, an art student who daily jogs by her cottage before he is attacked and left in the bog with a pocket full of gold coins, an ancient sacrificial ritual. It is not only Nathalie who investigates the mysteries of the bog but also Maya, a crime and art photographer who decides to investigate, among other things, the ditches in the bog that seem to be readied as graves.

As a mystery novel The Forbidden Place (a terrible title, unfortunately) is uneven.  But I loved its suggestion that there is a  “time of wild grapes, of soft light spreading across the mire” and that is a time leaving us  “wanting to linger” … ”To make room, create space to exist in.”