by Young-Im Lee
Young-Im Lee’s Forgotten Reflections begins in present-day Seoul. Our young narrator has dreamed of planes that “hid behind skyscrapers as they suddenly appeared to hurl bombs at us”. Setting aside the inelegance (I’m not sure planes hurl bombs), the dream makes the girl’s parents laugh, while her grandmother, Ji Iseul, who survived the Korean and second world wars, is more pragmatic: “It’s better to die comfortably in your own bed.”
The novel recounts Iseul’s story, beginning after the Japanese retreat from a devastated Korea in 1945. A starving Iseul fights for life in a village called, rather unsubtly, The Wasteland. The only bright spot is Jung-Soo, a bratty hunk whose powerful father is rumoured to be a North Korean spy. Iseul’s story was inspired by the author’s grandmother, which lends Forgotten Reflections considerable interest. Its undoubted power, however, is hampered by the chatty narration, which does turn out some ungainly phrases. Finding an archive of her grandmother’s life, our narrator discovers the photograph that “swept my imagination in a whirlwind of curiosity”. A flawed debut, but a lively one.