...a bold mashup of wartime novel and love-triangle romance ... Kim charts personal and national turmoil with equal interest, offering exquisite scenes of marital discord as adeptly as the inner workings of a refugee village or field hospital ... The story urges its readers to sympathize by making Jisoo unworthy of Haemi although the complexity of these relationships could thrive without leaning on objective flaws ... Sorrows compile at an increasing pace as the novel closes, but its finest moments are in its everyday troubles in a landscape wracked by war.
In alternating first-person chapters, Ms. Kim chronicles her characters’ discontent. Haemi tries to settle into her marriage and find consolation in her four daughters, but her family acts as a living reminder of her distance from Kyunghwan and, as Jisoo puts it, 'If the smallest thread in her happiness loosened, she followed it without reason.' Kyunghwan becomes an eternal bachelor, living only for the few tortured and short-lived reunions Haemi allows him. Late in the novel, Jisoo springs for a beach vacation in Busan, but the return to the place of Haemi’s decision to marry him triggers a psychological collapse that shoves the story to its painful ending. Ms. Kim possesses a pleasingly clear and fluid style of writing, and in the opening chapters she deftly intertwines personal and political conflicts ... Like its characters, this sensitive but rather grueling novel becomes trapped inside a moment in the past, fated to relive the same mistake to the exclusion of anything else.
Kim’s work makes the desires and concerns of the destructive United States a distant background to the full rendering of South Korea and its local inhabitants during and after the Korean War. This book is no narrative of triumphal imperialism or essentialized nationalism; Kim alters the expectations of the genre to include a much stronger focus on women and the multigenerational cultural changes that occur in and after a war caused by a global power struggle ... The book is situated in a clearly defined historical context of what is often labeled in the U.S. as the Forgotten War, but that history is told from the outlook of those living through the experience; the details aren’t spoon-fed ... This is a grand, sweeping story that proves that an epic can yield strong, individualized characters while still developing a nuanced perspective that refuses to essentialize war, women, or national identity ... The novel impressed me in ways I wasn’t expecting.
Although If You Leave Me is set in war-torn Korea, the novel mainly concerns itself with love—romantic love, love of country, love of family, and, ultimately, the inability to love on command ... Despite the sympathy the reader is likely to feel for Haemi’s situation, she is also a difficult character to like, and the author makes no apology for that. Haemi doesn’t behave. She breaks the 'mommy rule' by putting her happiness ahead of that of her children. She is spiteful to passersby. In short, she sidesteps the stereotype of the spunky heroine who overcomes her circumstances to find happiness in the face of overwhelming odds. Instead, the author relies on lyrical and nuanced storytelling to avoid these tropes in favor of the portrait of a complicated woman ... Kyunghwan’s story is compelling in its own right, as he struggles to grasp even the slippery lowest rung of economic stability.
If You Leave Me is an uneven novel, but one that does a good job exploring the ravages of war, poverty and mental illness ... 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 ... 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 ... 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.
Hunger, both physical and emotional, haunts the lives of the extended Lee-Yun family during the tumultuous, violent decades that define modern South Korea in the latter twentieth century ... Kim renders her multivoiced, multilayered ancestral and cultural history into stupendous testimony and indelible storytelling.
A family struggles to balance tradition and change in Kim’s marvelous debut. Sixteen years old and living in a refugee camp in 1951 Busan, South Korea, Lee Haemi is not interested in marrying but knows the plight of her situation might necessitate it. War has put everything on hold except starving, dying, and desperation. Her decision to find a husband—borne partially out of hope for finding help for her ailing little brother, Hyunki—ripples through the lives of those around her, especially the cousins who compete for her affections: quiet, studious Yun Kyunghwan and loyal, clever Yun Jisoo ... But Haemi is faced with choosing between safety and her own passions when Kyunghwan reenters her life. Kim’s lyrical intergenerational saga resonates deeply.
The character of Haemi is fascinating, her predicament a kind of Korean Virginia Woolf situation ... Though this bulky saga is not as compelling as it could be, Kim's portrayal of the effects of mental illness on a family at a psychologically naïve time is perceptive and moving.