Lemon: A Novel

  • By Kwon Yeo-sun; translated by Janet Hong
  • Other Press
  • 160 pp.

The murder of a high-school student changes the trajectory of three women’s lives.

It wasn’t too long ago that South Korea was a country in ruins, with a population living in poverty. Over the course of various American-backed military dictatorships, the country emerged as an economic powerhouse, becoming the world’s 11th-largest economy. Inevitably, income disparity flourished, and the issue has reached crisis proportions.

Today, South Korea is at the forefront of artistic expression exploring the dehumanizing effects of class and income inequality, a theme particularly suited to the national sentiment of “han,” which can be loosely translated as a deep resentment that produces an unquenchable desire for revenge. The world is catching up. The K-drama “Squid Game,” about debtors pitted against each other in a fight to the death for a huge cash prize, has become a global phenomenon.

South Koreans are also producing some of the most thought-provoking, exciting work in contemporary literature (sorry, Jonathan Franzen and Sally Rooney), dominated by female novelists like Han Kang, Shin Kyung-sook, and Cho Nam-joo (Koreans give surnames first), who train their unflinching female gaze on systemic, institutionalized misogyny. Now, in elegant translation by Janet Hong, English readers have access to another electrifying talent with the release of Kwon Yeo-sun’s Lemon.

While the world watches the closing ceremony of the 2002 FIFA World Cup, jointly hosted by South Korea and Japan, an extraordinarily attractive student named Kim Hae-on is assaulted and left to die in a Seoul park. Two male classmates are the prime suspects: Han Manu, a bullied misfit whose most salient feature is that he walks with a shuffle because his shoes are ill-fitting; and Shin Jeongjun, the scion of a wealthy family and the last person seen with Hae-on.

Hae-on is the most stunning girl in school, much to the chagrin of Yun Taerim, also gorgeous, “but compared to Hae-on’s absolute, staggering beauty, she didn’t seem all that much different from the rest of us.” Taerim is jealous of Jeongjun’s attentions to Hae-on, and on the fateful day, asks Manu for a ride on his scooter so she can see who is in Jeongjun’s car with him. She sees Hae-on and immediately gets off the scooter. Hae-on’s body is discovered the next day.

The crime, dubbed the High School Beauty Murder, is never solved.

Over the next 16 years, Hae-on’s murder reverberates through the lives of the three first-person narrators: Da-on, Hae-on’s dumpy younger sister; classmate Sanghui; and Taerim. The chapters narrated by the first two reveal their innermost thoughts, while Taerim engages in a one-sided dialogue with mental-health professionals whose part in the conversation is unreported. All three women, at some point in their lives, find solace in writing poetry.

Da-on is disfigured by the tragedy, both metaphorically and literally, as she repeatedly goes under the knife to get her face remade in the image of her late sister’s. When Sanghui meets Da-on four years after the killing, she notes, “Her plastic surgery made her look like her sister, but something was off. In fact, she looked like an older, ruined Hae-on, who had been rejuvenated by force, a cross between the real Hae-on and a ravaged Hae-on. Where had the old Da-on gone?”

Meanwhile, Taerim is unhappily married to Jeongjun. Neglectful of Taerim, her husband shows an uncharacteristic love for their infant daughter, Yebin. Before she is a year old, Yebin is kidnapped, and whatever promise Jeongjun had is shattered, at least according to Taerim — who is also shattered, but for a different reason — and he descends into dissolution while she seeks redemption in the church and (less successfully) in therapy.

Eight years after the murder, on the day that Da-on misses her own college graduation, she has an epiphany while eating a soft-boiled egg:

“The yolk glistened in the light. I couldn’t help thinking how lovely it looked…Lemon … The brilliant yellow of the yolk was making me want to write poetry once more…I felt my consciousness open its eyes and stretch lazily, as if waking from a winter’s sleep.”

This awakening spurs her to investigate Hae-on’s death. “At last a door that had been shut for a long time was opening, and radiant light came flooding in. And so began the revenge of the yellow angel. Lemon, I muttered. Like a chant of revenge, I muttered: Lemon, lemon, lemon.” She seeks out the most likely suspect, Han Manu.

Though the incident that is at the center of the plot is a violent one, violence is not the main preoccupation of this slim but extremely nuanced novel, but rather the societal conditions that allow violence to go unpunished. Da-on’s act of revenge is so subtly seeded into the story that the reader might miss it.

Some readers, too, may be disappointed that the murderer is never explicitly named or brought to justice. But this is not that kind of crime novel. The very point is that the murderer escapes legal repercussions. In an inequitable society that offers the marginalized little protection, revenge is the last chance for any sort of justice.

But like income inequality and institutionalized sexism, revenge is ultimately just another cog in the continuing dysfunction of South Korean society. As Sanghui muses, “[W]hat had happened…wasn’t over. And it never will be. It will go on endlessly, until the end of Da-on’s life, or maybe beyond that.”

Alice Stephens is the author of the novel Famous Adopted People, editor of Bloom, a book reviewer, and a columnist for the Independent.

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