STARRED REVIEW
August 01, 2018

Living with a past that haunts and excites

By Crystal Hana Kim

Crystal Hana Kim’s sensual debut novel doesn’t feel like a debut at all. Set in South Korea in the 1950s and ’60s, If You Leave Me is a delicately woven story of love, family, war and isolation.

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Crystal Hana Kim’s sensual debut novel doesn’t feel like a debut at all. Set in South Korea in the 1950s and ’60s, If You Leave Me is a delicately woven story of love, family, war and isolation.

Haemi and Kyunghwan, two old friends and almost lovers, meet at night while their refugee village sleeps. They get drunk on makgeolli, a milky rice wine, to forget the misery of war. When Kyunghwan’s cousin Jisoo begins to court Haemi, Haemi’s mother urges her to think of what Jisoo can provide for their family—food, wealth and honor. Haemi and Jisoo marry soon after he brings back medicine that saves her sick brother’s life.

When both Jisoo and Kyunghwan leave for war, Haemi finds work in a local hospital. Jisoo returns with a lame arm, and Kyunghwan heads for the metropolis of Seoul. Haemi learns to care for Jisoo, and together they have several daughters. Each birth and the haze afterward leave Haemi scarred, more ghostlike and less human. This is a life she would never have chosen for herself, and daydreams of Kyunghwan become her escape. Amid rice paddies, mountains and vivid flowers, Haemi lives in her memories. Her daughters tell stories of their goddess mommy who exists in the ether.

Through the lyrical, surprising and chilling prose of If You Leave Me, Kim forces readers to examine the pressure put on women by societies that demand they adhere to one kind of life. Under different circumstances, Haemi may have been able to choose her own life. Instead, she does the best with what she has.

This is a story worth weeping over, with a fiery and complex heroine that earns the reader’s love.

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If You Leave Me

If You Leave Me

By Crystal Hana Kim
Morrow
ISBN 9780062645173

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