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Book Review: Lemon by Kwon Yeo-sun

Book Review: Lemon by Kwon Yeo-sun

At under 150 pages, Lemon – Kwon Yeo-sun’s first novel to be published in the English language – is a masterclass in brevity. Never lingering too long in any one location or with any one character, it is a literary crime story set in contemporary Korea that explores the aftermath of the murder of nineteen-year-old Kim Hae-on and how such an awful crime affects the people left behind.

The first person we meet is Da-on, Hae-on’s sister – younger in age but older in mentality, who’s fixated on the violent way her sister died and unable to move on with her own life as a result. Years pass without justice and Da-on tries to recover the things she lost, setting out on her own to find out what really happened to her peculiar but beautiful sister. Switching perspectives, we see through the eyes of Hae-on’s classmate, who both envied and hated her but acknowledges she didn’t deserve to die. She, too, can’t stop thinking about what happened. The final perspective is that of Hae-on’s friend, another classmate, who can look at the situation more objectively and has an inkling of who the culprit is.

It might move through time in a linear fashion – taking place across different points between 2002 and 2019 – but in every other way Lemon is a non-linear book. Switching perspectives without any real acknowledgement except a shifting in thought-process, it’s up to readers to figure out who’s narrating and what their relationship to the other characters and the central crime might be. It can be a jolting, fragmented experience – just as you’re getting accustomed to one perspective, it swiftly shifts to another – but Kwon Yeo-sun manages to maintain a fascination with the crime at the heart of the story because it’s so central to each of the characters’ lives and how – or more importantly, if – they’re able to move on in any normal, functioning way.

Could the fact that we’re alive, the fact that we’re in this life where joy and terror mingle and peace and danger mix – couldn’t that itself be the meaning of life?”

Within these brief chapters, Kwon Yeo-sun dissects gender, privilege, familial dynamics and the class structure that dictates how people are treated and perceived. Apart from Da-on, whose perspective is given a little more time to breathe and expand, we never truly get to know any of the characters, which can be frustrating if you’re used to slipping into characters’ shoes as if they’re your own. But what Kwon Yeo-sun manages to achieve so well is the experience of anguish that plagues Da-on in the immediate aftermath of her sister’s murder; the feeling of life grinding to a halt for both her and her mother, who exist in the same house but deal with the sudden loss of Hae-on separately. Da-on having to pull herself out of that black hole of grief is palpable – it’s just a shame the story doesn’t give readers a chance to live with the questions and culpability these characters have before it jumps forward in time.

Disjointed yet strangely absorbing, Lemon is an intriguing book to read but a difficult one to categorise. A minimalist novella rather than a novel, it traverses the literary crime genre but doesn’t deliver much in the way of suspense – except surrounding whose perspective you’re actually reading from. Kwon Yeo-sun constantly diverts and misdirects, making this more of a psychological tale than any kind of typical murder mystery. Indeed, if you’re confounded at the beginning, you’re likely to be even more so when you reach the end. But where Lemon really shines is in its portrayal of grief and guilt, which feels so raw and complicated – as it is in real life. It doesn’t offer up any real closure or resolution either, but perhaps that’s just like life too.

★★★

Lemon is translated by Janet Hong and published by Head of Zeus on 14 October 2021

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