‘Lemon’ by Kwon Yeo-sun (Review)

It’s not often that I try thrillers, but in a coincidental turn of events, this week sees me reviewing two on the blog – both works in translation, of course 🙂  Later this week, we’ll be off to Taiwan for a chilling tale of revenge, but today we’re heading to South Korea for a slim book with a bite, and a story that’s certainly colourful – even if you might have trouble at times filling in the gaps…

Kwon Yeo-sun’s Lemon (translated by Janet Hong, review copy courtesy of Other Press) is a clever novel spanning seventeen years, told in eight parts.  The story begins with an interrogation at the police station, where student and part-time delivery rider Han Manu is being grilled for being in the wrong place at the right time.  You see, while riding his scooter back from a delivery, he happened to see the beautiful Kim Hae-on sitting in the passenger seat of an expensive SUV – and that was the last time she was seen alive.

Manu is eventually released, and the case is never solved, but not everyone is prepared to move on:

For over sixteen years, I’ve pondered, prodded and worked every detail embroiled in the case known as “The High School Beauty Murder” – to the point I often fool myself into thinking I’d personally witnessed the circumstances now stamped on my mind’s eye.
p.1 (Other Press, 2021)

The speaker here is Kim Da-on, Hae-on’s younger sister, a woman unable to leave the past behind, determined to get to the bottom of what happened back in 2002.  As the years go by, new details come to light, until we begin to realise just what happened on the fateful night, and who was involved.

If Lemon sounds like a conventional thriller, it’s actually anything but.  Kwon’s novel is a short work, coming in at just under 150 pages, and it’s broken into eight sections set at different times, each told by a first-person narrator.  Half of these are told by Da-on, while the others are narrated by other women mentioned in the story.  In a novel short on facts, the writer forces the reader to pay close attention to both what is and is not said if they are to tease clues out and understand what’s going on.

In some ways, the murder victim, Hae-on, is almost a minor character.  Most of what we do learn about her concerns her other-worldly beauty, yet as Da-on explains, she’s usually also somewhere else mentally.  She describes a scatter-brained young woman who needs close attention if she’s to remain decently clothed, someone apt to simply walk out half-dressed through sheer absent-mindedness, and it’s this carelessness that is to lead to her murder, with someone taking advantage of her nature, and deciding that her appearance can only mean one thing.

We get a very different picture of Da-on, an organised, determined woman who can’t let go.  We hear her side of the story on several occasions, seeing how she slowly puts the pieces of the puzzle together.  However, the structure of Lemon also allows us to see her from the outside, through the eyes of an old school friend she runs into a couple of times.  It’s only when she’s shown from a different angle that another side of her comes through, a slightly odd woman who for some reason is doing her best to keep people at a distance.

The thriller side to the story is unrolled gradually and works very well, but what makes Lemon stand out is its cutting portrayal of Korean society.  This is perhaps best shown in Han Manu, whose poverty makes him an easy target:

That day the detective would have weighed Han Manu’s narrow, pinched face against Shin Jeongjun’s clean features, the former’s cheap World Cup T-shirt against the latter’s IVYclub button-down shirt, a single mother against an accountant father, and the twentieth rank in class against the top ten of the entire grade, as well as the credibility of the witnesses providing the alibis.  Rather than try to find the real culprit, the detective would have considered whom he could – or should – crush, and turn into the culprit.  And that’s exactly what he tried to do. (p.19)

This isn’t the end, or even the start, of the young man’s issues, and in many ways, Lemon is just as much his story as Da-on’s or Hae-on’s.  We’re shown how his life lurches from bad to worse, despite his best efforts to get by – in a society built on nepotism, he’s doomed to a poor life from the start.

Han Manu’s story is just one example of the ‘Koreanness’ of Lemon.  Kwon alludes to the advantages of being born into certain families, the cheap homes others live in, the importance of school rankings and dangerous driving on delivery scooters.  There’s so much here that would act at a visceral level on Korean readers, a reflection of aspects of everyday life, and even the day it all begins presses Korean buttons.  You see, the crime occurs in 2002, on the night of the World Cup final – a memorable time in the country’s history, and one that often crops up as the background to works of Korean culture.

It all comes together wonderfully, with the writer deliberately withholding information, making us draw connections ourselves.  Hong, who has translated, amongst other books, fiction by Han Yujoo and Ha Seong-nan, does excellent work here in this tense, taut story, and together writer and translator produce a work where the reader is kept guessing while being shown a society where finding the truth is less important than making sure everything runs smoothly.

In many ways, Lemon is a bleak tale, where people like Hae-on and Manu suffer through no fault of their own.  As Da-on says:

Some lives are unfair for no apparent reason, but we carry on, completely unaware, like miserable vermin. (p.106)

However, that’s not to say that justice is impossible – it just takes a little time and effort.  Kwon suggests that if you try hard enough, even the most perfect of crimes can be brought into the daylight.  How the culprits can be punished, though – well, that’s another story entirely…


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