Review: May Ngoon Kwon Yeo-sun

The Scaffold Falls Away

Lemon begins like a conventional crime novel – there’s a detective interrogating a suspect, trying to pin the murder of a young woman onto an obviously vulnerable young man. The detective zooms in on a detail – the fact that the suspect says the victim was in shorts when she was wearing a yellow dress – in the hope that it points meaningfully to the suspect’s guilt. The rest of the details are similarly conventional for a crime novel, right down to the nickname given to it by the media – ‘High School Beauty Murder.’

School girl Kim Hae-On is found bashed in the head and dies from a cranial injury, resulting in two people, both of whom are also teenagers, becoming the prime suspects: Shin Jeongjun, from a wealthy family, who drove the car Hae-on was last seen in; and Han Manu, a part-time delivery driver who passed their car on his delivery scooter. Jeongjun has a tight alibi for the time of death confirmed by all his friends so suspicion falls squarely on Han Manu, who, despite the detective’s violent interrogation, is never charged due to a lack of evidence. The killer is never caught.

The genre trappings of the crime novel give the beginning of Lemon propulsion – however the scaffolding very quickly falls away, as this slim novel moves on to centre three women who knew the victim and to explore how they cope in the aftermath of the crime. The chapters move across several years, each taking the point of view of one of the three women, so we can follow their trajectory as they become consumed to varying degrees by the murder.

One of the women is Da-on, Hae-on’s younger sister. Da-on is haunted by her sister’s senseless murder; so much so that years later, she goes to seek out Han Manu, the taint of suspicion still on him, to try and get answers. Da-on pores over the facts or possible facts to try to determine what actually happened:

But what I really can’t understand is why she’d been in Shin Jeongjun’s car. She wasn’t one to go along with something she didn’t want to do. The laundromat lady confirmed she hadn’t been forced. So why had she gotten into Shin Jeongjun’s car in front of the laundromat? Where had she been heading? And where had she gone after she climbed out of his car, at around seven p.m.?

The second woman is Hae-on’s classmate Sanghui, who only knew Hae-on from a distance. She describes Hae-on as the most beautiful girl in her school:

…and the loveliness I had glimpsed from her profile bloomed wide, like a parachute bursting open. I felt as if I were going to explode. Her beauty seemed not of this world, a kind you rarely encountered. All of a sudden, the classroom seemed to have transformed into a fictional, perhaps magical, place.

Sanghui, less affected by the murder of Hae-on, chronicles her run-ins with Da-on over the years and through her we observe how Da-on, through significant weight loss and plastic surgery, physically transforms into her sister in the aftermath of her murder.

The third woman whom we get a perspective from is Taerim, Jeongjun’s girlfriend. She was on the delivery scooter with Han Manu when they passed Jeongjun and Hae-on in the car. Taerim is now married to Jeongjun, and these chapters of the novel are presented as her side of conversations with a phone counsellor and psychiatrist. Through these monologues, we discover another crime – that Taerim later had a baby daughter who was kidnapped and never seen again.

Lemon reminds me of the Japanese crime novel Out (1997), by Natsuo Kirino, where four women who work the night shift at a bento factory band together to cover up the murder of an abusive husband by one of the women. The women lead hard lives, not only in the factory; they variously struggle with debt, alcoholic husbands, gambling problems, loan sharks, caretaking of elderly relatives and childrearing. In Out, who the murderer is, is irrelevant. Instead, the novel is concerned with the aftermath of a crime and how the women handle it; and through this Kirino gives us a glimpse of the lives of these middle-aged working-class women.

Similarly, through its characters Lemon is able to explore themes of beauty, class, privilege and justice. For example, the victim Hae-on is depicted as otherworldly beautiful but hapless, unaware of her beauty, and actually unaware of anything much at all, often staring into space and forgetting to dress properly. Her beauty simultaneously evokes jealousy, admiration and desire. In Lemon, beauty is shown as a weapon which if you cannot wield, will be wielded against you.

Lemon is also an exploration of our obsession with true crime. Understandably, Da-on becomes possessed by her sister’s murder, ‘over sixteen years, I’ve pondered, prodded, and worked every detail embroiled in the case,’ but her fellow high students also become titillated by the case; going over the timelines, making their own educated guesses on which of the suspects might be guilty. They reflect perhaps a global fascination with unsolved crimes, as demonstrated by the huge popularity of true crime documentaries and podcasts.

But the ‘facts’ of the crime that Da-on encounters in her own investigation are blurry, uncertain. As we see the detective question Han Manu, and then Da-on herself questioning him years later, as well as Taerim as she recounts her own, sometimes conflicting, version of events, we wonder; who is telling the truth? And how can we know or ascertain this? For example, much of Taerim’s chapters are one-sided rants, including one which sounds like she suspects her husband, Shin Jeongjun, of being guilty. Or does it? Is this a hint by Taerim that she knows more than she’s willing to admit, or the ramblings of someone who has gone off the edge, having lost her baby? How much of Taerim’s testimony can be trusted?

Because … she was ashamed … Because she’d tried to seduce him, but failed … That’s probably why she committed suicide. Yes, this really happened. She hit her head against the wall until … cranial injury … she died of a cranial injury. Just thinking about it gives me the creeps … God … it’s so horrible … How could an eighteen-year-old girl do that … bash her head against the bathroom wall … bash her head in until the marble cracked … until she died … just because she was tied up … how could she do something so awful … ahhh … I’m scared … she went crazy … she completely lost it.

Still, didn’t he run off to America and get off scot-free?

The mosaic structure of the novel means that we jump across years quite quickly, as well as shifting point of view in each chapter. The reader has to reorient themselves in the timeline frequently as well as guess who is speaking. It gives the novel a disorientating feeling that enhances our sense of not knowing what is the truth, or how these conflicting accounts add up. On a second read, I find that there might be clues in early chapters; but are they red herrings to misdirect? Or do they point to who the real killer is? Or, actually, do they really just mean nothing? Are we, like some of the characters in the novel, attempting to make meaning out of useless details, simply because we need it (a senseless killing) to make sense? This need for truth depicted in the novel as well as for justice – when neither is readily available – feels true to life, especially in the case of a brutal murder. What also feels true is the novel’s depiction of mourning.

Because Lemon is really about the other side of crime – grief. Not only the grief that comes from the loss of a loved one, but the particular grief that is born of a death which shouldn’t have happened, and the lack of justice that excludes any possible sense of closure. The grief here is doubled, layered, because the transgression is doubled – firstly in the crime committed and then in the lack of justice:

All at once my mother and I found ourselves plummeting down a deep well. She quit her job at the shop, and I took a leave of absence from school. We slept for days or were unable to sleep for days. We forgot to eat and didn’t have the strength to clean ourselves. Lacking the most basic thought that we needed to climb out of the well, we lay face down in the dank darkness, as if dead, for a long time.

Da-on and her mother deal with their particular grief in various ways: Da-on loses weight and undergoes plastic surgery (Sanghui in one of her chapters notes how Da-on ‘looked like an older, ruined Hae-on, who had been rejuvenated by force, a cross between the real Hae-on and a ravaged Hae-on.’) Da-on loses herself in the process of grotesquely trying to resurrect her sister, while her mother attempts to reclaim Hae-on by changing her name to Hye-eun retrospectively in the official paperwork; Hye-eun was the name Hae-on was originally given before her father mispronounced it with his provincial accent. Her mother believes that giving Hae-on a lower-class sounding name meant she was destined to become a victim of crime. And then there is a hint of the crime committed by Da-on and her mother, related to the initial one, showing how crime begets other crimes:

This isn’t a metaphor; it’s a fact. Ten years after my sister’s death, my mother held in her arms a live baby named Hye-eun. This baby was my gift to her.

The novel also points to an inescapable hard truth about justice; that it is often determined by class. Jeongjun, deservedly one of the main suspects as Hae-on was last seen driven by him in his sister’s car, comes from a wealthy well-connected family. Despite being the last person seen with Hae-on, he is provided with watertight alibis: ‘Everyone backed Jeongjun’s story: his friends who had been with him, the server at the Japanese restaurant, the nightclub waiter, as well as the owner of the hangover soup restaurant.’ After the crime, Jeongjun is sent to school in America.

Han Manu, the other suspect who is a delivery driver as well as being a school student, doesn’t return to school. He is beaten, threatened and pressured to make a confession by the police, and only released due to lack of evidence. When Da-on finds Han Manu years later, he is working in a factory, having lost a leg to cancer. The difference in treatment between rich and poor by the justice system, and the consequences for each whether proven guilty or not, is vastly different. This too, feels true to life.

There are many kinds of deaths, little ones, after someone has died. Lemon shows that the people who are left behind struggle to escape from these little deaths. Grief must be survived – so that it doesn’t finally crush you.

Da-on limps on through the years, barely surviving her urge to solve the crime of her sister’s murder; it almost consumes her completely. She still doesn’t know what really happened that day her sister died, nor who the killer was. This lack of resolution prompts existential questions for Da-on: ‘I’d believed that if I tracked him down and heard what he had to say, everything would be resolved at last, but I still hadn’t figured out how I was supposed to live.’

Lemon is finally about life itself – and its meaning – especially in light of lives, like Da-on’s, that have been shattered by a traumatic event, ‘I still can’t help but wonder, do our lives truly hold no meaning? Even if you try desperately to find it, to contrive some kind of meaning, is it true that what’s not there isn’t there? Does life leave only misery behind?’

Different characters try to grasp at the mystery of life and to make sense of it; Taerim feverishly turns to her Evangelical God, but finds little relief:

Please forgive that asshole … No, don’t forgive him … I pour out my heart before you with tears, loving Jesus, won’t you help me … You know I’m blameless, please help me find a way … Would your strong hand lead me out of the valley of the shadow of death … I ask for your wisdom … Please give me your spirit of discernment … Ah … is no one there? I’m scared … Please … I’m so scared …

Da-on seeks out Han Manu. Even though she can’t solve the crime, she becomes friends with him and his sister. It is only after he dies that she is finally able to mourn her sister, to find some kind of answer to the mystery of meaning in life that her sister’s death instigated in her. In a moving description of the laundry plant that Han Manu worked in before his death, where she describes the almost beautiful, graceful movements he would make with the industrial iron, she concludes:

Could the fact that we’re alive – the fact that we’re in this life where joy and terror and peace and danger mingle – couldn’t that itself be the meaning of life? Hadn’t Han Manu, with an iron in one hand and a crutch wedged under his other arm, been more alive than anyone in this world, more alive than the cancer cells that had spread to his lungs? Hadn’t my sister Hae-on – as she sat with her feet on the sofa or car seat, her knees spread with not a thought in her head, with absolutely no clue as to the inappropriateness of her actions – been warm and exquisitely alive, just like a bird about to take flight? Couldn’t each moment we’re living now be the meaning of life?

The translation into English from the original Korean by Janet Hong is crisp, clear and precise. The lemon of the title is a reoccurring motif. There are references to James Joyce’s lemon platter from A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man, frequent mentions of yellow dresses, egg yolk; often the references, like Joyce’s writing, do not make much sense:

And so began the revenge of the yellow angel. Lemon, I muttered. Like a chant of revenge, I muttered: Lemon, lemon, lemon.

What is the significance of lemon, besides the fact that Hae-on was murdered in a yellow dress, and that Da-on similarly dons one on after she physically transforms into Hae-on? Maybe this recurring motif is also a red herring, of no significance besides the meaning that Da-on gives it, that we as readers give it. Perhaps this points to the greater mystery that Da-on struggles with, and that we do too – the most compelling mystery of all, death; and the flipside of it, life. It is perhaps fitting that an investigative crime fiction structure is used for this novel, because it is a mystery that is the most difficult to solve, and one that finally may simply be dependent on the meaning that we ourselves give to it.

Published June 14, 2022
Part of Juncture: JUNCTURE is a fellowship program presenting a series of new essays on Australian and international literature by leading critics.  All Juncture essays →
May Ngo

May Ngo is a Teochew Chinese Cambodian Australian who currently lives in Prague. She...

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