Book review: I'll Be Right There, by Shin Kyung-sook
In the embattled Seoul of Shin Kyung-sook's new novel, I'll Be Right There, the constant clashes between riot police and leftist student protesters do not interest Jung Yoon, a poetically inclined undergraduate: she prefers German poets to radical rhetoric.
On the first day of classes, Yoon's favourite literature teacher says he's weary of the political fighting around him. "That day, Professor Yoon had just one thing to say to us: what is the use of art in this day and age?"
It's the early 1990s and the professor bemoans living in an age "when words have lost their value", a time "dominated by violent words, by words swollen and yellowed with starvation".
I'll Be Right There is Shin's 17th book, but just the second to be translated into English. The first, Please Look After Mom, won the Man Asian Literary Prize for 2011.
Shin uses a spare, deeply emotional literary style in I'll Be Right There to take up themes of loss and memory. Her novel gives a sense of what it's like to have a poet's soul in a country that always seems to be on a war footing, in a perpetual conflict with enemies both foreign and domestic.
The novel opens with a kind of prologue that takes place long after its main events. Yoon receives a call from an old boyfriend she hasn't heard from in eight years: Professor Yoon is dying, he tells her.
"As his illness progressed, Professor Yoon had insisted on being alone and refused visitors - just as my mother had done," Yoon says. "In the face of death, he wanted to be strictly and faithfully alone."
Shin writes about longing and loneliness with the controlled passion one finds in classic Russian literature. Her characters rarely raise their voices. Instead, they tell stories, they walk and eat together. Above all, they remember.
Newly arrived at the college campus and mourning her mother, Yoon had sought consolation in literature and in new friendships with those who were also misfits and outsiders on campus. They met in Professor Yoon's class. The teacher began the first class of a new term with a biblical parable, a tale with a powerful message: the story of St Christopher carrying a baby over a stream. They, too, must carry each other through Korea's turbulent present, he told his students, and they must trust that art would give them strength to do so.
There's a melodramatic underpinning to the story of the main characters in I'll Be Right There. But until the novel's final chapters - when the stories of loss all come to a violent climax - Shin builds her narrative on the solid foundations of everyday, ordinary Korean life.
Shin writes wonderfully about intimacy and the longing of lonely people. At its best, I'll Be Right There is a hopeful work about the power of art, friendship and empathy to provide meaning to people's lives.