The Good Son by You-Jeong Jeong

The Blurb On The Back:

The smell of blood woke me.  It was intense, as though my whole body was inhaling it. Strange scenes flitted through my mind – the fuzzy yellow light of a row of street lamps in the fog, swirling water below my feet, a crimson umbrella rolling along a rain-soaked road.  I got out of bed.  I needed to figure out what had happened.

Yu-jin is a perfect student, champion swimmer and good son.  But one day he wakes up covered in blood.  There’s no sign of a break-in and there’s a body downstairs.  It’s the body of someone who Yu-jin knows all too well.

Yu-jin struggles to piece together the fragments of what he can remember from the night before.  He suffers from regular seizures and blackouts.  He knows he will be accused if he reports the body but what to do instead?  Faced with an unthinkable choice, he makes an unthinkable decision.

As the police descend on the suburban South Korean district in which eh lives, another body is discovered, and Yu-jin must remember what happened – he has to go back, right back, to the night he lost his father and brother, and, eventually, further than that … 

You can order The Good Son by You-Jeong Jeong from Amazon USAAmazon UKWaterstone’s or UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

25-year-old Yu-jin lives in with his mother (who worked in publishing before retiring) and adopted older brother Hae-jin (who works in film production) in an apartment in suburban Incheon.  His father and older brother Yu-min died in an accident 10 years previously.

Yu-jin was a champion swimmer heading for a place on the South Korean Olympic team until epilepsy forced him to stop competing. Turned his energy towards study, he became determined to become a lawyer, he is currently waiting on the results for his law school admission exams.  He takes the medication for his epilepsy prescribed by his psychiatrist Auntie but dislikes how it dulls his senses and sometimes comes off his meds so that he can experience life more sharply, frequently going out to run late at night and in the early hours of the morning so that he can enjoy the feeling of being free.

One morning Yu-jin wakes up to find both himself and the apartment covered in blood.  In the hallway lies the body of his mother, her throat sliced open. Yu-jin doesn’t know what happened: he’s had a blackout and doesn’t remember much about the previous night. But he knows that he can’t go to the police – can’t tell anyone what’s happened – until he’s worked it out and that means forcing himself to think and to remember everything …

You-Jeong Jeong’s psychological thriller (translated from Korean by Chi-Young Kim) is a weirdly stilted, soap opera-style affair that’s more why-do-it than who-dunnit and filled with overdone emotions, motivations that stretched credibility and although there are some interesting moments as it seeks to get under the skin of a psychopath, ultimately I struggled to hold my attention on it until the end and wouldn’t rush to read Jeong’s other work.

For me the big problem with this book is that it depends on the unreliable narrator device and Jeong deploys this by having Yu-jin simply forget very significant moments from his life right up until he suddenly remembers them with absolute clarity because the plot demands that he does. Given the nature of some of these events – most notably the accident that claimed the lives of his brother and father – I found this really difficult to buy into and while I think that Jeong wants the reader to believe that the medication Yu-jin takes has hampered his memory such that he only starts to realise when he comes off it, given the number of times he tells the reader he’s stopped taking it in the past and the calm way he deals with those memories once they’re arrived really stretched credibility for me.

Similarly I found it difficult to buy into the relationship between Yu-jin, his mother and his Auntie.  I suspect that some of this ties into Korean notions of family and obedience to elders, but again it just doesn’t ring true for Yu-jin given the hostility he constantly displays in his inner monologue to the reader as against how he actually behaves around them.  The relationship between Yu-jin and his mother, for example, has a real soap opera quality to it – especially a key confrontation between the two – and while Jeong uses the device of the mother keeping a journal to try and flesh out her motivation, there’s just not enough between the two of them on the page to explain things in a way that I found believable.

The back cover blurb talks about this as a book that examines how far a parent would go to protect a child, but I never really got a sense of Yu-jin’s mother trying to protect her so much as trying to suppress and hide him away.  Jeong does well at showing the latent fear that Yu-jin’s mother experiences around him and it’s neatly contrasted with the genuine affection that she has for Hae-jin but other than that I didn’t get much of a sense of why she does what she does. In fact, Jeong does a better job of showing the dynamic between Yu-jin’s mother and his Auntie and there’s a definite undercurrent of the Auntie using Yu-jin’s condition to lord it over and control her older sister, which I would have liked to have seen more of.

There are some scenes where I believed in Yu-jin’s psychopathy but these tended to be the quieter scenes where he’s reassessing his relationship with his relatives.  The scenes where Jeong has him out “hunting” tended to spoil this – written in an exaggerated way that had me rolling my eyes at times – although a scene involving him stalking a girl with a red umbrella are better handled, with some neat tension courtesy of a drunk man who’s also got an interest in her.

The relationship between Hae-jin and Yu-jin is more effectively depicted – I believed in the friendship between the boys and how Hae-jin’s adoption into the family changed and challenged that, not helped by the obvious preference that Yu-jin’s mother has for the boy.  Where it does fall down though is in the final quarter and specifically with some of Hae-jin’s decisions regarding reporting matters to the police.  Although Yu-jin keeps stressing how honest Hae-jin is and how he tries to keep to his word, it does very much read like a convenient way of getting to the book’s climax because the alternative would have been to write Yu-jin into a corner he could not get out of.

The writing style is quite stilted and stylised at times – most notably in the dialogue, which does not flow naturally – although I don’t know if that’s due to the translation or the original text. I also found that the pacing dragged at points, usually where Yu-jin goes on a rant about how his mother and Auntie are suppressing him and holding him back.

Ultimately, it’s not that this is a bad book but I think it’s a bit of an acquired taste and I would hesitate to check out Jeong’s other work on the back of it.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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