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I'll Be Right There By Kyung-Sook Shin translated by Sora Kim-Russell, book review

A haunting mix of the political and the personal

The political turbulence of 1980s South Korea is the backdrop for Kyung-Sook Shin's latest novel, namely the near-daily protests by university students and other youths on the streets of Seoul as they were fired upon with tear gas and water canons, the most vocal in their dissent against the government disappearing without trace, others committing public self-immolation in despair.

It's been eight years since Jung Yoon saw her old university boyfriend Yi Myungsuh, but one day, out of the blue, he rings her up to tell her that the professor in whose class the one-time lovers first met is dying. Forced thus to stare the "ghosts of us from days past" directly in the face, Yoon is catapulted back to the tumultuous affairs of her university years – the grief she suffered following the death of her mother; her relationship with Myungsuh, a student activist; the close bond between the two of them and Myungsuh's "inscrutable and enigmatic" friend Miru; Yoon's friendship with her childhood companion, Dahn, who loses himself in the army; and her, Myungsuh and Miru's beloved Professor Yoon, a man who inspired many of the choices they made: "Literature and art are not simply what will carry you," he tells them during their first class, "they are also what you must lay down your life for, what you must labour over and shoulder for the rest of your life."

Thrown together in the confusing aftermath of a street protest, the idealistic trio of Yoon, Myungsuh and Miru soon become inseparable, but Miru is carrying the heavy pain of a personal trauma that eventually becomes a burden they must all share.

South Korea's troubled history looms large in the background, the fates of many of Shin's characters are directly tied up in the politics of their actions, but to call this a political novel would be to overlook the universal story it tells of young love, youthful dreams, ambitions and ideals.

The complex triangulated relationship between Yoon, Myungsuh and Miru – "After a while, I couldn't tell whether the person I was really curious about was him or Miru," Yoon muses, recalling her early attraction to Myungsuh – bears a faint but distinct resemblance to that between Jean Cocteau's adolescent protagonists in Les Enfants Terribles, or the characters in Antal Szerb's Journey By Moonlight, not so sizeable a step between the cultures of East and West when one considers Shin's use of European (and American) literaturein the novel.

I'll Be Right There is a haunting story of adolescent entanglements that will speak to readers everywhere.

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