In the summer of 2002, when Korea is abuzz over hosting the FIFA World Cup, eighteen-year-old Kim Hae-on is killed in what becomes known as the High School Beauty Murder. Seventeen years pass without any resolution for those close to Hae-on, and the grief and uncertainty take a cruel toll on her younger sister, Da-on, in particular. Unable to move on with her life, Da-on tries in her own twisted way to recover some of what she's lost, ultimately setting out to find the truth of what happened.
By the end, the reader will know who the killer is, but that knowledge takes a back seat in this poignant tale ... A taut novella in eight vignettes, Lemon is not so much narrated as spilled, confessed, blurted out in the alternating voices of three women recalling a tragedy that took place when they were in high school ... Kwon takes advantage of the multiple perspectives at her disposal. What one narrator sees as a kindness, another shows to be an act of necessity; what one assumes is solicitation is later revealed to be reckless ... They exist more as vehicles through which the story is told than as flesh-and-blood individuals. A reader would be hard pressed to pinpoint their internal attributes or quirks. But the story is told so vividly and poetically that it doesn’t suffer much for this lack of insight ... Lemon is easy to devour in one sitting, but my advice is: Don’t. I was so focused on the murder that I almost missed another mystery unfolding right before my eyes. “Lemon” should be read slowly and closely in order to appreciate it when Kwon pulls off what I can describe only as a sleight of hand ... In Janet Hong’s translation, Kwon’s writing is masterly. Her sentences are crisp, concise and potent; just one contains as much meaning as two or three of your average storyteller’s ... Lemon, much like the fruit, is a bright, intense, refreshing story.
It’s a slow burn through the characters most impacted by the killing, tracing their various trajectories in the years that follow. A lot is touched on here, from class politics to the criminal justice system, but it’s the feminist lens with which Kwon regards the tragedy, and the sensitivity and subtlety she brings to her characters that propels the novel ... This manifestation of the class system’s effect on people’s lives serves not only as one of the most poignant sections in the book, but also a resonant throughline. Meanwhile, the sections from Sanghui’s perspective add necessary nuance to the book. Her calm, insightful demeanor, and her commentary on her memories both of her school days and her occasional post-graduation interactions with Da-on provide some welcome solid ground in a novel concerned with the very nature of truth ... It’s far more thoughtful than a simple murder mystery whose pleasure lies primarily in unpuzzling the whodunnit ... The writing in Lemon can feel Murakami-esque, at times; deeply introspective, pouring over memories, with more questions than answers. But it’s Kwon’s subtlety that gives the book its strength.
The women of Lemon are desperate for answers, and so, too, are we as readers. Kwon brilliantly resists clarity at every step ... it took a second read to appreciate the book as a whole. As a murder mystery fan who’s sometimes so impatient to find out who did it that I’ll jump to the end and spoil it for myself, I finished Lemon somewhere between frustrated and bewildered: What did I just read? Hae-on’s murder, like most real-life murders, abounds with unanswerable questions beyond who did it, nagging unknowables that force you to sit with the discomfort of wanting—even feeling owed—a kind of closure that doesn’t exist ... This narrative style mimics that of the whodunnit, dropping clues and red herrings along the way, but there are other, more compelling, mysteries we’re trying to solve. Your enjoyment of it will depend on how you feel about ambiguity. Of course, there are details that tantalize us with meaning, and then there are those that just seem incomplete ... I found myself wishing Kwon had given us just a little more time with the main trio. Just as I was starting to really get a sense of who they were, they were gone. What is clear is the writer’s shrewd diagnosis of a culture that disempowers women—commodifying and consuming them, one after another, until their appeal wears out.