While the first of this week’s Korean literature selections probably won’t be on many people’s wishlist, the same certainly can’t be said for today’s choice. Kim Ae-ran is a writer who’s been on my radar for quite a while now, thanks to the excellent short stories ‘Where Would You Like to Go?’ (translated by Jamie Chang, out in the ASIA Publishers K-Fiction series) and ‘The Future of Silence’ (in the collection of the same name, translated by Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton). I’ve been crossing my fingers for a long-form debut in English for quite some time now, and 2021 has finally seen it happen – and luckily, it doesn’t disappoint. This is a novel about a life less ordinary, and about making the most of what you’ve got, even when to outsiders it may seem that you’ve been dealt a very poor hand, indeed.
My Brilliant Life (translated by Chi-Young Kim, digital review courtesy of Forge Books) is narrated by the sixteen-year-old Areum, and the first chapters focus on his parents. His mother, Mira, falls pregnant at the age of sixteen, and the hapless taekwondo student Daesu suddenly finds himself married, living in a small hut at his in-laws’ house and the father of a screaming baby boy. As Areum writes of the young couple’s early woes, it sets the scene for what looks to be a typical Korean family comedy-drama.
But there’s far more to Kim’s novel than that, and slowly we learn that there’s a reason behind Areum’s stories, and it’s a fairly upsetting one:
I turned sixteen this year. People say it’s a miracle that I’ve lived this long. I think so too; not many people in my situation have lived past their sixteenth birthdays. But I believe that the larger miracle exists in the ordinary, in the living of an ordinary life and dying at an ordinary age.
(Forge Books, 2021)
Early in his life, Areum is diagnosed with progeria, a condition in which children age at an accelerated rate, leading to an inevitable early death. Knowing that his time is limited, Areum is writing about his family, hoping to survive until his seventeenth birthday and complete his tale as a present to his parents…
Given that set-up, My Brilliant Life is a story that could easily have descended into mawkish melodrama, but while there are a few tear-jerking moments, Kim instead crafts a surprisingly positive story. A nice breezy tone pervades what turns out to be a clever, enjoyable book, with the writer pushing the story along at just the right pace. I was reminded in some ways of a couple of other K-Lit successes, Jang Eun-jin’s No One Writes Back (tr. Jung Yewon) and Park Min-gyu’s Pavane for a Dead Princess (tr. Amber Hyun Jung Kim), both of which manage to portray difficult lives with sympathy and humour.
The story is built around the experiences of Areum, who tries to grow up mentally while his body races on ahead. Unsurprisingly, he’s an introspective, inquisitive youth, and even if (for obvious reasons) he has no schooling, his curiosity and love for books help him learn more about the world:
Books were everything to me – a grandmother who told me stories all night long, a teacher who imparted all the knowledge in the world, a friend who shared their secrets and problems. Philosophy was difficult and I still don’t understand many parts of those books, but I thought of them as a long, elegant poem. I figured the part that didn’t make sense to me would someday walk toward me and say hi, the way important lessons usually sink in later in life. They made my heart race without having to physically run.
In many ways, he’s wise beyond his years, and that makes for a telling contrast with those around him, such as his youthful parents, still only in their early thirties, and his friend Little Grandpa Jang, a sixty-something neighbour who’s rather young at heart himself.
Yet despite his maturity, Areum is still a child, and he realises over the year covered in the book that he has a lot to learn. His loving parents are actually struggling badly, with their son’s medical fees seeing them rack up huge debts, a fact he only becomes aware of when an overheard conversation jolts him out of his comfort zone. Later in the story, he also gets sucked into an email correspondence behind his parents’ back, and the reader can’t be sure if it’s that wise a choice…
My Brilliant Life is nicely structured, consisting of four parts roughly covering four seasons. After the first part introduces Areum and his family, gradually letting slip more information about his condition, the story moves towards a first climax of sorts, when he’s interviewed for a TV show in which millions of viewers learn of his situation. From here, there’s a gradual, inevitable decline, and as winter approaches, it’s hard to avoid thinking that it’ll be the boy’s last.
In the hands of the wrong writer, My Brilliant Life could easily have turned out clichéd and formulaic, but that’s certainly not the case. Kim cleverly keeps the reader guessing, with little surprises frequently around the corner, and the many excellent conversations sprinkled throughout the book often have the effect of stopping the action becoming too soppy. Areum’s chats with Little Grandpa Jang are always great fun, but I had a particular soft spot for his parents’ bed-time conversations, where Daesu’s boneheaded comments are effortlessly shot down by Mira as she tries to get to sleep.
Another strong point of the book is the way Areum focuses on the positives, Yes, there are low points, and a few bad dreams along the way, but there are also many beautiful moments, including the description of one recurring childhood memory:
I remember that sensation even now. That spring day I bounced – boing – then my dad – boing – then me again – boing – and then my dad – boing. That was the brightest moment of our lives: the cool, refreshing breeze, our pounding hearts, the bouncy give underfoot. We laughed as we fell and we tumbled as we giggled. The other children surrounded the trampoline and stared up at us, their mouths hanging open. I didn’t care. We laughed and laughed, our faces turning red. We hadn’t done that in a long time.
It’s Areum’s ability to hold on to the warm memories of better times that enables him to cope with a painful life spent in and out of hospital.
Kim’s debut novel in English was long overdue, but it was certainly worth the wait, and it’s the kind of book that could cross over into the reading mainstream if promoted well enough. There’s nothing overly unique or unprecedented here, but My Brilliant Life is a heart-warming story of a youth refusing to see his life as a waste and making the most of the little time he has available to him. And perhaps that’s what most readers will take away from the experience – the idea that every life can be brilliant if you only look at it from the right angle…