I’ll Be Right There by Shin Kyung-sook

“Is this life? Is this why the relentless passing of time is both regretful and fortunate?”

I feel rather conflicted about I’ll Be Right There. The first two chapters certainly held my attention and some of the discussions that occur later in the narrative were thought-provoking, but, alas, many of the dialogues came across as stilted, there are many instances where the story verges on being straight-up misery-porn, and yet we also get a good ol’ dose of melodrama and some rather sappy moments.
After receiving a phone call from her ex-boyfriend our narrator, Jung Yoon, reminiscences about her early twenties. Her time at university in the 1980s was punctuated by anti-government student demonstrations. Yoon is still mourning the death of her mother and feels slightly removed from her everyday life. She becomes close to two other students, Myungsuh and Miru. The three are united by their trauma, grief, and shared sense of not belonging.
The story that follows is quite slow going. We get detailed descriptions of some of the lessons they attend or the walks they go on. Now and again we are reminded of the fraught political atmosphere but the major conflicts within the story stem from grief-related trauma. I wasn’t too keen on the way Miru’s backstory is presented. Not that I can’t believe that all these horrible things happened to her but the way her past was revealed to Yoon—and us—seemed to sensationalise it. In general, I can’t say that I cared for how mental health-related issues are dealt with within this novel. A character has an ED and this is portrayed almost in a poetic light.
The dialogue occasionally was just jarring. We have a scene in which character A is confessing their feelings to character B. Character B responds by saying ‘do you like more than character C?’. And character A doesn’t answer this but goes on to recount a story about a dead sparrow and then about being peer-pressured into eating a sparrow and all the while saying how they love B as much as the sorrow/tragedy they experienced in those moments. But character B keeps asking the same question (do you like me more than C?) throughout A’s sparrow speech.
The professor character remains largely off-page so I did not feel anything really towards him. Interspersed throughout the narrative are diary entries of Myungsuh and I can’t stay that these added anything (to him or the overarching story).

I appreciated some of the discussions on grief and literature but I never felt anything in particular for the characters. The ‘romances’ were very ‘meh’. They sort of happen and I can’t say I found them all that convincing.
All in all, I just think this wasn’t the right read for me. The story is boring, the characters dull and defined by their trauma, and the narrative’s tone often shifted to one that was far too sentimental for my taste. But, just because this was not a ‘win’ in my books does not mean that you should not give it a try so I recommend you check out more positive reviews if this is on your radar.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

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