‘I’ll Go On’ by Hwang Jungeun (Review)

In their short history, English indie publishers Tilted Axis Press have already shown a tendency to stick by their writers.  They’ve released two books apiece from Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay (India) and Prabda Yoon (Thailand), and now Korean author Hwang Jungeun is the latest to benefit from this strategy.  After the positive reception to her last novel, One Hundred Shadows (translated by Jung Yewon), we’re heading back to Seoul once more, this time to spend some time with three interesting characters, all with secrets to reveal 🙂

I’ll Go On (translated by Emily Yae Won, digital review copy courtesy of the publisher) is built around the relationship between two sisters, Nana and Sora.  After a tough upbringing, the two women are understandably close, but when Sora has a dream she interprets as predicting a pregnancy for Nana, her sister is surprisingly evasive.  The possible pregnancy doesn’t actually fill Sora with joy, though, as it only makes her think of her own mother, and their strained relationship:

To be a mother is to be like Aeja.  To have a child is to be a mother, and to be a mother is to become Aeja.  That’s how my circuit’s been set, twisted or not.  Not so much in the way I think, but in the way I feel.
And so it’s best not to make a baby in the first place.
(Tilted Axis Press, 2018)

That’s a big call…

As the story takes us back into the past, we start to see what Sora has against the idea of being a mother.  After their father’s untimely death, the girls move to a strange semi-basement apartment for two families, where they meet, and share their home with, Sunja and her son Naghi (another to have lost his father at a young age).  This, then, is the setting for the three children’s formative years, and while life isn’t always as comfortable as the girls might have hoped, they’re able to get by with a little help from their new friends.

One Hundred Shadows was an impressive story of those living far away from the bright Seoul lights (certainly no Gangnam style here…), and while the grown-up versions of Sora and Nana are a little more mainstream, I’ll Go On has a similar feel.  Less a plot-driven book than a leisurely look back at three people’s lives, it’s a soothing tale broken up by a few less than soothing moments.  The more we learn about the characters’ past, the more sense their present actions make.

The story is divided into three parts, each told by a different voice.  A mix of the present day and the past, the sections move the story along slowly, but with a fair bit of overlap, at times allowing us to see multiple views of the same event.  Sora, the elder sister, is a little stiff and defensive, with a need to escape the past and bury herself in a comfortable, if dull, routine.  Nana is spikier, ready to start arguments by addressing issues her sister would rather avoid.  However, when it comes to her pregnancy and relationship, she’s drifting along somewhat, and the question of what will actually happen with the baby threatens to boil over into a major conflict.

Perhaps the most interesting character here, though, is Naghi.  In the first two parts, he acts as an enigmatic helper, ready to assist the sisters with advice and sushi when they’re in a slump.  However, when he gets his chance to speak, it’s a very different story.  Behind his calm facade, there’s a warm-blooded man, and we learn that he too has his problems, which may be more difficult to come to terms with than those of the sisters.

The title is rather apt.  It occurs many times over the course of the book (Nana is particularly fond of using it) and has a couple of meanings.  With the spoken nature of the sections, the characters can occasionally get sidetracked when telling a story, and the phrase is used as a means of getting back on track.  The second meaning is in the sense of going on when times are tough.  Even when there are problems (and there are plenty, such as Aeja’s gradual disintegration and the issue with the father’s insurance money), all you can do is grit your teeth and bear it – and they do…

One important theme in I’ll Go On is family.  In a country where your heritage is important, growing up without a father brings more than the usual disadvantages.  The sisters have an uneasy relationship with relatives they rarely see, with duties towards their dead father offset by the way the relatives behaved after his death.  Nana seems to be sleepwalking into a marriage just for convenience’s sake, but is far happier spending time with Naghi.  The father of her unborn child, ultra-conventional, is unable to see that things can be different, and that there are many ways to live your life:

He spoke again, slowly tilting his head, there is no love between a man and a woman that is not the love between sexes.
Even if it may not be the case now, when it comes to men and women, it’s bound to come to that, isn’t that obvious?
Ajossi, I repeated.
Don’t erase things from the world just because you are incapable of imagining them.

Here, Nana is emphasising the writer’s own different take on what is ‘normal’, and I’ll Go On shows that a family has many forms.  Certainly, Naghi’s constant attention and Sunja’s offer of lunch boxes for school have more of a family feel than the scene that meets Nana at her boyfriend’s house, that of three semi-strangers vacantly gazing at a TV screen.

Overall, I’ll Go On is an enjoyable read, and Emily Yae Won does an excellent job here, particularly with the distinct voices (such as Nana’s tic of referring to herself in the third-person).  Having read several Korean books describing difficult childhoods, I didn’t really find anything new here, but it still makes for an enjoyable story of how a problem shared is a problem halved (or even thirded?!).  Most importantly, it serves as a reminder that when life gets tough, sometimes the only thing you can do is put your head down and simply go on…

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