I’ll Be Right There* is a gem of a novel, a quiet, masterful rendering of the emotional life of a young woman looking back on the formative years of her early twenties. Ms. Shin is one of South Korea’s most popular writers, and I’ll Be Right There is her second book translated into English (the first was the bestseller Please Look After Mom); Sora Kim-Russel’s deft translation flows smoothly and carefully through its pages.
Jung Yoon recalls the period that began with the illness and death of her mother, when Yoon attempts to navigate life on her own, university courses, friendships new and old, first love, and escalating political turmoil. Though the novel is loosely set in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Ms. Shin makes clear in her author’s note that she deliberately did not assign specific dates to the work:
[. . . ] I believe that what happens to the characters in I’ll Be Right There is in no way limited to South Korea. Everything that happens in this novel could happen in any country and in any generation. I believe that no matter how rough the world becomes, there will always be teachers and students learning from each other, and even when savage and violent powers obstruct our freedoms, there will always be earnest and heartfelt first loves and friendships being born. While writing, I was focused on and absorbed in giving expression to those moments. I believe those are the moments that define our lives. We may be the protagonists of tragedy, but we are also the heroes of our most beautiful and thrilling experiences. (324)
I loved Yoon’s thoughtful, melancholy voice from the beginning of the novel, and her three friends — Miru, lost without her absent sister; Myungsah, wavering between protest and study, and Yoon’s first love; and Dahn, Yoon’s childhood friend who abandons art for the army — are beautifully delineated through Yoon’s memories, as well as letters and diary entries.
A show-stopping passage in which Yoon’s favorite professor tells a version of the St. Christopher tale, about fifty pages into the novel, makes I’ll Be Right There a must-read; it resonates through the rest of the novel, to the very end. Like the professor’s story, I’ll Be Right There is about how we manage adversity and grief in all its forms. Delicately conveyed and beautifully human, it’s highly recommended reading.
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.