IF YOU LEAVE ME, by Crystal Hana Kim. William Morrow, 417 pp., $26.99.
On the first page of “If You Leave Me,” a teenage girl named Haemi sneaks out of the modest home she shares with her mother and ailing younger brother, heading to a rendezvous with her longtime friend Kyunghwan. “He and I were celebrating,” she explains. “We celebrated every night.”
They don’t have much to celebrate. The characters in this debut novel, set after the start of the Korean War, are refugees, forced out of their town to a village in the southeast edge of their country by the invading Communist army from the north. “If You Leave Me” is an uneven novel, but one that does a good job exploring the ravages of war, poverty and mental illness. The 31-year-old author, Crystal Hana Kim, was born in Queens and grew up in Jericho.
Haemi and Kyunghwan aren’t lovers, although they have strong feelings toward one another. They meet as often as possible, sneaking into bars, Haemi flirting with the boy with whom she wants to be more than friends. Kyunghwan rejects his friend’s advances, but is still annoyed when his cosmopolitan cousin, Jisoo, starts courting the girl: “I didn’t understand him,” Haemi muses. “He acted jealous of Jisoo, and still he refused me.”
Frustrated by Kyunghwan’s tentativeness, Haemi decides to marry Jisoo. She’s still in love with his cousin, but her mother, taken by Jisoo’s social standing and charisma, urges her to compromise: “Affection grows between a woman and a man. You can’t expect it from the beginning.”
Kyunghwan and Jisoo eventually join the South Korean army; both survive the war, but Jisoo loses the use of one of his arms. The rest of the novel plays out over the ensuing several years, as Haemi and Jisoo raise a family, with the former battling depression and the latter trying to drink and philander his post-war trauma away. Kyunghwan, meanwhile, works a series of jobs in Seoul, pining after Haemi the whole time.
Kim’s novel switches points of view among the main and supporting characters; it’s a technique that can be effective in fiction but doesn’t work here — all the characters narrate with the same voice, and the only one who feels fully fleshed out is Haemi.
That’s a shame, because she’s fascinating; Kim depicts her struggle with depression, and her stormy relationship with her husband, beautifully. In one stark passage, Haemi describes coming to terms with the marriage she never really wanted: “So I fell in love with Jisoo. I didn’t run away. When his nightmares turned him around, I didn’t imagine covering his face with a heavy buckwheat pillow. I stopped all that and loved him.”
But the chapters that take the focus off Haemi seem extraneous, a distraction from the real heart of the story, and they result in a book that’s a bit longer than it needs to be.
It’s difficult to pull off a novel with a love triangle at its center; it’s well-worn territory, and to keep readers interested, authors have to bring something new to the table. Kim doesn’t quite do that — Haemi and Kyunghwan are star-crossed in familiar ways, and their longing for each other frequently comes across as maudlin. Kim’s prose, while often pretty, turns florid a bit too often; it’s a novel that needs more restraint and more editing.
Still, Kim is a gifted storyteller, even if the story she’s telling doesn’t break new ground — she has a great instinct for pacing, and her dialogue mostly rings true to life. “If You Leave Me” isn’t perfect by any means, but nevertheless, there’s much to admire in it. It’s a promising, if flawed, debut from a clearly gifted author.