‘b, Book, and Me’ by Kim Sagwa (Review)

As much as I enjoyed our stop in Vienna, our Women In Translation Month travels mean we must head off again today, with the next stop being on the Korean coast.  We’re here to spend some time with a couple of middle-school girls, and a few of their friends.  Sounds good?  Well, that’s not the whole story.  Sadly, adolescence rarely runs smoothly, and in the girls’ sleepy hometown, not everyone is quite as friendly as our hosts.

Kim Sagwa’s b, Book, and Me (translated by Sunhee Jeong, digital review copy courtesy of Two Lines Press) is a short coming-of-age novel taking us through a year in the life of two teenaged girls.  The main character here is Hong Rang, the ‘me’ of the title, who enjoys walking down to the beach and feeling the sea spray on her skin.  As a bit of a loner, she’s happy to get to know b, a girl who lives in a poor part of town known as the End, and together the two spend their time at the beach or chilling out at a relaxed café called Alone.

Unfortunately, the two girls’ relationship hits the rocks when Rang reveals her friend’s poverty publicly, and the split is to have far-reaching consequences.  She’s no longer under b’s protection, leaving her at the mercy of some vicious bullying, and the violence gradually increases, to the point that school is no longer an option.  It’s at this point that she decides to get away for a while – and this is where Book enters the scene.

Kim’s previous Two Lines offering, Mina, was a fairly disturbing book, examining the impersonal nature of violence, its prevalence in Korean society, and its consequences, and b, Book, and Me is very much a variation on that theme.  In place of a couple of manipulating high-school students, this one puts the spotlight on younger, naïve kids lashing out at the world.  It’s a Bildungsroman where the key is less about learning from experience, than enduring what the world throws at you and simply surviving.  Getting to the end of the school year is an achievement in itself here.

The novel is divided into three parts, narrated by Rang, b and then Rang again.  One of the differences in this book compared to a lot of Korean literature is that it doesn’t take place in Seoul, with the provincial setting key to much of the action:

The city was located east of the ocean.  Everybody who lived there was pretty much the same.  We all went to the same school, watched movies at the same movie theatre, and ate hamburgers at the same burger place.  We all dreamed the same dream – we didn’t dream at all.  We just swayed like the waves back and forth, ending up in the same place we were before.
p.8 (Two Lines Press, 2020)

However, that’s not really true.  In this typical provincial town, there’s definitely one dream people have, and that’s to escape to the capital.  Rang’s schoolfriend, a bright boy she dubs Glasses, talks about nothing else, and most of the businesses in town use Seoul in their name, hoping that some of the big-city glamour will rub off on them.

There’s also another misleading statement in Rang’s lament; it’s certainly not true that everyone’s the same, something she discovers when she meets b.  While b’s family background doesn’t affect their friendship, the fact that Rang comes from a fairly stable, well-off family means that when she blurts out the secret of b’s poverty, she simply doesn’t realise what she’s doing, and how much she’s hurting her new friend.  One feature of the book, then, is the voyage of discovery she undertakes outside her comfortable home environment,  discovering how other people live.

One of the more striking elements of b, Book, and Me is this focus on the margins of society.  Where the city as a whole is fairly non-descript and out of focus, Kim describes the parts that stick out in far more detail.  By means of Rang’s wanderings, we’re shown the End, the slum area near the factory spewing out a sticky smoke that gets into houses, clothes and skin, and we spend most of our time with the town’s misfits.  Among these are b herself, Book and his obsession with reading, and the owner of Alone, a rat-race drop-out.  By contrast, Rang’s parents may as well not be there…

Of course, the most disturbing aspect of the book is the schoolyard bullying.  South Korea has a poor reputation for dealing with the issue, and this is reflected here in the way Rang is systematically and repeatedly taken out, for no good reason.  The writing cleverly enhances this.  We shift from a fairly simply style of two young teenagers going about their day to a blurred, dream-like section which spirals into ever-greater violence.  After yet another day of mental and physical torture, Rang muses:

Like yesterday.  I go to the sea.  My wounded hand, and b not being with me, is the same as yesterday.  Everything is the same.  And little by litle, I feel…
Yes, very scared.  And that’s the same as yesterday as well – feeling scared with my hair smelling like what I ate for lunch.  How long will this continue? How long will I live this terribly identical day?
Maybe forever. (p.32)

This is the true horror of being a victim, not knowing if it will ever end.

This section of the book is impressive, and the terror continues when we see these events through b’s eyes.  However, overall, I’m not convinced b, Book, and Me always hits the mark.  I didn’t really like the simple YA style, reflecting the younger protagonists, and the book felt a little short.  Even though there is a climax of sorts, with the girls facing up to their oppressors, I was left feeling a little flat by the end.  Compared to Mina, it all seemed a little light, as if the novel was just a stepping stone towards the greater psychological depth (and violence) of the other work.

b, Book, and Me is still a fairly interesting read, though, and another reminder that those good old days back at school weren’t actually all that good for many (particularly in Korea, it seems).  Perhaps the lesson Rang and b learn is that these times *don’t* last forever, so it’s important to hold on and endure until the good times return.  Or, to interpret it another way, make them return by striking back at your enemies.  That’s a far more Kim Sagwa way to see it 😉

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