Diary of a Murderer
And Other Stories
by Young-ha Kim
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
AMBER LOVE 21-JUNE-2019 This review is a courtesy provided by NetGalley. To support this site and my other work, please consider being a monthly donor at Patreon.com/amberunmasked; you can also buy my books through Amazon (or ask your local retailer to order you copies). I’m also an Amazon Influencer so you can shop through my lists of recommended products.
It’s been twenty-five years since I last murdered someone, or has it been twenty-six?
Diary of a Murderer captivates and provokes in equal measure, exploring what it means to be on the edge — between life and death, good and evil. In the titular novella, a former serial killer suffering from memory loss sets his sights on one final target: his daughter’s boyfriend, who he suspects is also a serial killer. In other stories we witness an affair between two childhood friends that questions the limits of loyalty and love; a family’s disintegration after a baby son is kidnapped and recovered years later; and a wild, erotic ride about pursuing creativity at the expense of everything else.
From “one of South Korea’s best and most worldly writers” (NPR), Diary of a Murderer is chilling and high-powered all the way through.
Translated by Krys Lee.
Diary of a Murderer
This was my first experience reading from the award-winning Korean author Young-ha Kim. The reason Diary of a Murderer caught my attention in the first place was because I saw a tweet by an author friend saying he was reading it. The power of social media, my friends.
This book is a collection of four unrelated stories. All of them are grounded in Korean identities from a rural old man with Alzheimer’s disease to a tragic couple mourning the kidnapping of their son. Young-ha and Lee’s translation skills showed worlds that while completely foreign to me, were woven with the single thread of humanity. The fourth story even sends the main character, a writer in a slump, to New York City’s Chinatown, a place I have visited. The book’s world was tangible from the descriptions of smells, textures and sounds like the bamboo trees in the wind during the first and titular story, Diary of a Murderer which I admit was my favorite.
That first tale of the old man, Kim Byeongsu was gut-wrenching and heartbreaking. He’s a serial killer coming out of “retirement” with the sole mission to murder his daughter’s boyfriend who Kim believes is also a new serial killer in the village. Each diary entry shows the good days and bad days of Alzheimer’s disease eating away at his memories. He has clear recollection of decades previous but can’t remember that he already tried to make his lunch. How can an author make a serial killer sympathetic? This method was like a punch in the gut, the kind of punch that knocks the wind right out of you.
“I began killing when I was sixteen, and I continued until I was forty-five.”
Despite the Alzheimer’s disease, some of what Kim experiences is perfectly normal concern for this person, Eunhui, who he considers his daughter. Of course a doting parent would worry about the person their child is dating. Suspicions would grow in anyone who sees this person popping in places and in dangerous situations. The reactions are real until Kim decides murdering this other man is the only option.
Young-ha pulls from great thinkers in history: Nietzsche, Homer, and Sophocles. He shows the parallels between Oedipus and Kim Byeongsu. The Odyssey is referenced for the character’s dedication to a defined mission only to be forgotten the next minute.
“I’ve decided on a final goal before I die. To kill Pak Jutae. Before I forget who he is.”
The anguish and frustration of not only Kim but also Eunhui are so tangible. She can’t tolerate his condition for one more second. She knows that he needs proper care in a nursing home where he can be watched constantly and be safe.
His past crimes finally come to light on his own terms. Kim wants to have all that out in the open before he dies. He is that friendly quiet neighbor in the village who lost his mind in old age but was secretly a serial killer. This is the kind of person Netflix would have a four-part documentary and then an original movie about. Kim is a fascinating character because of all the depth he is given by Young-ha.
The Origin of Life
The second story, The Origin of Life, didn’t grab me nearly as much as the first. Readers meet Ina, a woman who is in a horribly abusive marriage; and Seojin, a childhood friend who grows into one of the men who pines for her and wants to save her. There’s also Ina’s husband and a creepy, lurking loan shark in play.
The characters are just as real as Diary of a Murderer, but I wasn’t gripped waiting for the next scene like I was with that first story.
The third story, Missing Child, has much of the same anguish and frustrations as Diary of a Murderer. It’s a satisfying story despite all the heartbreak. Yunseok and Mira begin as a normal middle class couple buying groceries with their toddler in the shopping cart. Then every parent’s nightmare: the boy is kidnapped while they have changed their attention for just a couple minutes. After that happens, the schizophrenia that had been nearly invisible in Mira comes boiling to the surface and she is unrecognizable.
Seongmin, their son is only found when the woman who kidnapped him is killed. His DNA had been in some kind of missing person’s database and the authorities discover the match. He’s a petulant teenage boy dealing with the worst tragedy and then yank from his world into this strange place being told he has to live with people he doesn’t remember at all.
“Seongmin had no idea that he was kidnapped.” Yunseok had considered that possiblity. Seongmin was three in the Korean counting system, and not yet two in the international counting system, so it made sense.
Again, Young-ha Kim presents the reader with quintessential material about what is means to be Korean. The father character Yunseok leaves his automobile factory job for part-time work that isn’t enough to pay for anything more than squalor.
The final story is titled The Writer. As a writer with her share of mental health breakdowns in her life, I wasn’t surprised the character of the writer, Bak Mansu, loses his mind. His ex-wife Suji is also his editor and works for the publishing company which is bought by a rich Korean investor who made millions in America on Wall Street. Mansu refers to this investor as Raccoon. He gives everyone in his life mental nicknames, like his poet friends Philosophy or Cafe.
“He had large eyes but a small nose and narrow lips, and deep dark circles under his eyes that gave him a raccoon look.”
Besides the worries of writer’s block (yes, it is so a real thing), Mansu takes off for New York City to try writing in Raccoon’s apartment which is a not as the man had described it at all. Then Raccoon’s estranged wife shows up. It could be comedic, but instead Young-ha Kim takes the opportunity to introduce a nonstop erotic ten days for Mansu. The constant erections and sexual escapades with the most beautiful woman in the world, a woman so attractive she may as well be a goddess, are enough inspiration for Mansu to finally stay up every night writing. The manuscript is not at all what he had pitched to Raccoon and Suji.
The Writer is a modern noir complete with the mysterious and sex-crazed femme fatale. Oh and there’s also a gun in the nightstand because it wouldn’t be a noir without one. This stories has all the necessary elements: the ex-wife who may or may not be sleeping with a married man; the married boss who knows that his wife sleeps with anyone and everyone; the writer who doesn’t even want to write anymore but finds a woman to stir up his brain and genitals. The friends are also pompous assholes in their own way but necessary for Young-ha’s exquisite skill with irony.
Diary of a Murderer and Other Stories came out in April. I highly recommend giving this one a chance to broaden your reading diversity while having familiar criminal elements.