I’m normally not someone to pick up a novel described as “epic.” Perhaps it’s a sense that such large-scale works can’t capture the particular or that this genre is often the terrain of oversimplified, masculinist war stories. Such a large canvas has been popular of late, though, and women have been using the full breadth of their palettes to beautifully render key yet underrepresented stories about the United States. In the last year, narratives such as Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach about women during World War II in New York, Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers about gay men during the AIDS crisis in Chicago, and Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing about African-American trauma in Mississippi have embraced and transformed the genre, each in their own way. Crystal Hana Kim’s debut novel If You Leave Me belongs on that list, as it also covers 20th-century war and trauma in its epic sweep. Unlike those other narratives, though, 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.
Specifically, the story begins with chapters that alternate among the perspectives of Haemi, Kyunghwan, and Jisoo, who have been displaced to Busan in the newly created South Korea, a state forced into existence by the Cold War tensions between Russia and the United States. Haemi and Kyunghwan grew up together, and Jisoo and Kyunghwan are cousins. 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. For instance, if you want to know why the Korean War is labeled the 6-2-5 War in the novel, then you will need to look up that June 25 is the date of the invasion of South Korea by the North in 1951. Still, the author gives us other details about the country that paint a memorable picture, including the metaphoric description of the nation that Jisoo is taught by his father: “When I was little, he’d traced a rabbit in profile onto the borders of Korea. The tapered ears the northeasternmost point, encroaching on China, the paws jutting out into the Yellow Sea. Seoul tucked safely beneath its belly. We the humped back, and Busan its soft tail.” Such imagery alongside elevated expectations of readers is refreshing, as is allowing the voices and lives of those directly affected by the international power games instead of the power players themselves to take center stage. In this way, the narrative tracks the long-term traumatic effects of war on those who live there.
The three main characters are also in a love triangle. The two male cousins, Jisoo the wealthier one and Kyunghwan the one with a childhood connection to Haemi, are on a quest for her affections, but this love story also satisfyingly plays with our expectations of the form. The book tells a love story, but the idea develops to focus on the young woman at the middle of it, who is told that her choice of husband will determine the rest of her life. Will she marry for love or money, and is it that simple? The novel is very much about love but also spins from the singularity of heterosexual romance to being about self-knowledge, self-sacrifice, and an ambivalent representation of motherhood that is too often absent from popular narratives.
Much of this gendered analysis is focused on Haemi’s growing consciousness about the limitations she faces as a woman. From the start, she knows that when she goes out at night, she should dress as a boy to protect herself and not draw attention to her socialization with a man. She perceives that women’s bodies are seen as a threat and as something shameful—something which she doesn’t observe being put upon men in the same way. This idea is extended to women being judged for sleeping with someone out of wedlock. In this way, Haemi’s story is a traditional one of maturation as she recognizes the double standard that harshly judges women for their sexual behavior and not men. Not only does she question the general sense of how sexuality works against women, however; she also begins to question her own desire to be married and at one point actually hopes that the men stay away at war so she doesn’t have to take on the responsibilities of being a wife. This overall critique of the structures of heterosexuality and its confinement of women to marriage and child-rearing draws the reader through the story—Has she made the right choice?—but also allows the reader and Haemi to question if a single choice is all that is possible.
The damage caused by such limited options—gendered and otherwise—is also reflected in the beautiful but painful ambiguity of the novel’s language. For instance, when talking about her nightly escapes from the refugee camp, Haemi says, “I liked how I felt scraped clean with alcohol, painted over with indifference, until I was a wash of emptiness inside.” The feeling she “likes” is the absence of feeling, and the internal scraping of her body is potentially detrimental and perhaps symbolically hints at a desire to remain childless. After all, motherhood takes up an equally equivocal spot in the narrative, fluctuating between love and restriction.
Motherhood is first embodied by Haemi’s mother, who is mostly overlooked in the story, although she is an essential instigator behind Haemi’s choice of husband, telling her suitor that he can gain her heart through caring for Haemi’s brother. Her fate is doubly tied to the restraints of motherhood since Haemi herself is a nontraditional mother figure to her sick younger brother Hyunki. Marriage and motherhood are inextricably bound as her love for him mandates much about her life, while her later relationship with her daughters also shows how love functions as a method of control even as the narrative moves to the next generation. There are some difficult truths rendered about this primary relationship that even include postpartum depression. The question for all of the characters becomes: What are we willing to sacrifice of ourselves for others? How much should we be asked to sacrifice? How much is too much?
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 trauma of the war lingers for each of these characters even as they realize, like Jisoo does, that “We weren’t rebuilding. We were shaping ourselves into a different form.” Korea, the characters, and the narrative structure itself all show this to be true. The novel impressed me in ways I wasn’t expecting, and I’ll be keeping my eye on Crystal Hana Kim to see what she’ll do next.