My rating: 3 of 5 stars
When I received this ARC of If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim, I expected an account of life during and after the Korean War truce with the three main characters, Haemi, Kyunghwan, and Jisoo, representing the Korean experience. I suppose, in many ways, they do – the young man returning from war determined not to struggle again and impatient for reconstruction, the soldier running away from his past and struggling to find his place in the new world, and the girl who is now a woman searching for meaning in her new role after working and surviving the horrors of war.
Yet the novel is essentially a story about three people dealing with a reality that is a far cry from how they imagined their life turning out, whether because of the war, or the decisions they made, or political influence. The story almost could have taken place anywhere and any time. Especially for Haemi, who, like so many women, is strong, headstrong, and full of life and manages to stay true to herself through upheaval and unimaginable horrors only to lose herself in the mundanity of life.
Though I felt disconnected from the setting thanks to the very western language and the universality of the story, Haemi’s tale seeped into my soul leaving me feeling increasingly discontented and maudlin as I neared the end of the story. This, I feel, is a testament to Kim’s talent as a writer and character creator.
If you enjoy the historical and cultural elements of If You Leave Me, you may also enjoy Amy Tan’s epic The Valley of Amazement. If it is Haemi’s unique story that appeals to you, try Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn about another young woman