Tuesday, July 31, 2018

ARC Review: If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim

Pub. Date:Aug 7, 2018
Publisher:HarperCollins
Length:432 pgs
Source:Publisher

If You Leave Me is the debut novel by Crystal Hana Kim, a poignant tale of life and survival during and following war-time. I stepped out of my comfort zone with this one, and am glad for the experience. The author's writing drew me into the story and kept me interested, and I liked her overall writing style.

The story begins about a year after the start of the 6-2-5 war between North and South Korea. Admittedly, I didn't know much about this war and found myself googling as I went along, and hitting up Wikipedia for a basic overview at the outset. Not knowing much about the countries, the motivations, or the war, I liked this aspect of the book. Not because I liked that people were suffering in a war-torn country, but because it was something different and educational for me, and opened my eyes to a little more diversity and culture.

The story is told from multiple viewpoints, but I would say that our main protagonist is Lee Haemi, who we meet as a 16 year old girl living as a refugee in Basun, South Korea. We will be following Haemi's life throughout the war and beyond, and get a first hand account of the strife and difficulties that she and her family faced. From being torn between two boys/men, struggling through motherhood, and trying to find her place in the world, Haemi began as a sympathetic heroine. I was drawn into the difficult choices she had to make from a young age, but was repelled just as often by her lack of maturity and selfish behavior. She had quite the dichotomous nature, and I often wondered if she was suffering from bipolar disorder. Haemi began the story as more of a nurturer and caregiver for her family, but later she often couldn't find the same motivation for her own husband and children. I'm not sure where things started to go wrong with her, or if the effects of the war were just too damaging on her young psyche. But as the story continued on, I liked Haemi less and less. But that didn't stop me from reading this saga, and I finished it mostly in one sitting over the course of a day.

I think using the terms "passionate and timeless romance" in the blurb are misleading here, and gave me unrealistic expectations. This was not a happy story, and it was not one of hope or romance. The tragic relationship between Haemi and Kyunghwan was more toxic than timeless, and I saw very little passion between them (other than drunken teenage recklessness). I don't know whom I felt more sorry for. Both Haemi and Kyunghwan were so often lost in their lives, that I never achieved a level of hope for either of them. I liked Jisoo more than Kyunghwan in the beginning, but that didn't last the length of the book and my feelings were reversed in that regard before the end. Even the children weren't portrayed in a flattering light. So by the end of the book, I can't say if I really still liked any single character, other than the youngest girls.

But while the characters have kept me questioning myself, I did really enjoy the portrayal of life in Korea. I couldn't understand any of the Korean words, particularly with regard to food and clothing, but that didn't take away from my overall enjoyment of being immersed in the culture. I liked that she seemed to keep true to Korean mores and values, without Americanizing much. The rebuilding and industrialization of South Korea was fascinating, as was the stark portrayal the lives of citizens, soldiers and refugees with various political leanings. I felt like the author did a good job at portraying the life of a refugee, though I don't have any firsthand experience to go on. There was good imagery which allowed me to imagine the lives, settings and horrors of civil conflict. And the multiple viewpoints as we went along allowed us to experience the story in a multidimensional way. There were lots of thoughts and feelings to go around, so if you weren't particularly drawn to one character, another one is sure to catch your interest.

I wasn't quite satisfied by the ending, even though it did close one of the main loops.  Things felt unresolved to me and I was left wondering what happened to a number of our characters. But that could just be me as a spoiled romance reader who is used to getting her happily ever afters by the end.

As I said above, I enjoyed Kim's writing style, which I found to be poignant and eloquent. I am impressed that this is her debut work, and I expect she will have more to offer in the future. I voluntarily read and reviewed an advanced copy of this book that I received from the publisher.


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