If You Leave Me

Written by Crystal Hana Kim
Review by Viviane Crystal

Five narrators tell the story of Korea in the 1950s and 1960s in a quiet but dramatic tone. Everyone has been affected by the Korean War, from those who were called to serve in the ROK military to citizens suffering from physically painful starvation. Haemi is a sixteen-year-old young woman when this story begins and best friends with Kyunghwan. They sneak out at night, ride to town on one bicycle, and get drunk at a cheap club whose staff neglect to question their age. Soon Kyunghwan introduces Haemi to his friend, Jisoo. The next quarter of the novel dwells on whether Haemi truly loves one of these young men. Do love and having fun make for a good marriage, or are kindness, compassion, and financial stability the grounds for a successful union? Jisoo is also kind to Hyunki, Haemi’s brother, who suffers from consumption. Eventually, Jisoo marries Haemi, but the remainder of the story is far from predictable.

Two aspects focus this novel, keeping it from being simplistic. One is the weight of choices during a time of war. Day-to-day living carries the reality of intimacy but is overlaid by the responsibility of providing food for children and working a secure job. Jisoo is proud of his success but knows his weaknesses (not just physical) affect everyone around him. Haemi’s evolution as a person and character is the other theme that compels us to continue reading and caring. Her mindless love for play eventually changes to concern for her future but gets all mixed up when eventually she questions her so-called “wise” choices. What happens develops into an unexpected climax and resolution. Fine historical fiction.