Kyung-Sook Shin’s (신경숙) Wonderful “I’ll Be Right There” (어디선가 나를 찾는 전화벨이 울리고) a review and confession.

Cover of "I'll Be Right There"1) “Wherever you go? There you are.”

This was a difficult book to review, paradoxically because I liked it so much^^. And it is currently available on Amazon UK NOT the root Amazon site.

Kyung-Sook Shin’s I’ll Be Right There  (Originally titled: 어디선가 나를 찾는 전화벨이 울리고, or something like “Somewhere the Phone is Ringing”) mixes strong and enduring feelings and relationships that sometimes coincide, often conflict, and far too often collapse. It is an astounding story of interconections, both personal and social and it is written in the form of a loop, with the simple, but touching framework of a story of St. Christopher.

I’ll Be Right There is also an astounding meditation on living in time, both time lost and time gained, as well as, to be overly reductive, an expression of a philosophy of a way to live. I’ll Be Right There immediately stands out as a book that supports, perhaps even needs, multiple readings.

Those who have read Shin’s previous works, the world-famous Please Look after Mom, and lesser-known The Place Where the Harmonium Was, will find this book a surprise, either a delightful one, or an unexpected one (perhaps both), depending on whether or not that reader expected Shin to be a “genre” writer or not. While the book is tear-jerking (in the most positive way imaginable) it does not return directly to the theme of her previous translated works, families, and in particular the relationship between mothers and daughters. Instead, it takes that kind of relational theme, and examines it between people, families, generations, and even with respect to the country of South Korea.

2) St. Christopher and You

St. Christopher, one of the framing devices of the novel, is first introduced to the narrators (for like Please Look After Mother, the work is multiply narrated) at University, by Professor Yoon, and it is here that we meet the main characters. The story begins with a phone-call to the main narrator Jung Yoon from her ex boyfriend of eight years ago Myungsuh. The call is to tell her that Professor Yoon is dying. This phone call begins the unspooling of a backstory that can only be called wonderful, if often painful, as Shin deftly weaves the lives of five (I count two extra than the publishers do^^) main characters and a full cast of supporting characters (it is one of the wonders of the book that so many characters are so well tended and contain complete interiority) into an era of political and social unrest. Yoon, through her own thoughts and the diaries and letters of others, meditates back upon the death of her mother, first love, the deaths of friends, the meaning of lost time, and how the experiences of isolation and estrangement can paradoxically build bonds.

In addition (I was reminded of Kim Young-ha, but in only this one way), this book is written in a way that connects a non-Korean reader to the content, as Yoon, highly educated, often frames her thoughts around icons well known to the west including Emily Dickinson, Rainer Maria Rilke, and others. Shin notes, in an afterword, that in the novel she never specifically says when the novel takes place, but to Korean readers it would immediately obvious that the events of the book take place in the context of the student demonstrations of the 1980s and 1990s. By slightly decontextualizing the events of the book, Shin, makes it far easier to connect to – one does not need to know who Chun Doo-hwan or Roh Tae-woo (Likely two of the presidents during the narrative) were to understand the situation the students, professors, and families are in.

Shin seamlessly combines symbols (an empty family house, trees, the scent of tear gas, spiders) with themes of estrangement, loss, and the importance of time. Again, this a universality that gives this book strong impact in English. This is real literary fiction in which you have to keep track of people’s changing lives and motivations – these are not plot-characters set in motion to come to a predictable ending and the several “Oh MY God!” moments in the novel hit hard and often unpredictably.

3) What is a lifetime?
In an interview conducted at the 10 Magazine / Seoul ABC Book Club (video here), Shin noted that she is obsessed with this issue of time, particularly lost time, time which in some ways she feel is non-linear. Shin felt as though her own work was, in a way, a payment (I may be choosing the wrong word here) to those who had died young, who had died with things yet to do, and life left to live. As Shin puts it in the book, “their unfinished time that I was living.” (320). I’ll Be Right There is filled with such tragic characters, and asks the question, to what extent can art ameloriate, mediate, or partially heal such losses. Shin puts this question directly on the table on page 7, when Professor Yoon asks his class, as a demonstration rages outside the classroom window, “What is the use of art in this day and age?”  While Shin/Yoon never directly answer this question they do strongly suggest that any form of communication is the only hope we have of living as individuals in an increasingly fragmented world.

4) Writing and translation
Shin’s writing is very strong and descriptive, and her eye is keen and unsparing. She nails, for instance, the strong solipsism of University life, particularly at an ‘art’ school:

The male students were more interested in protesting or drinking than in going to class, and the female students were busy preening or being dramatically depressed. It was the kind of place where, in the middle of an ordinary conversation, you could burst into Hamlet’s or Ophelia’s lines and nobody thought anything of it. There, it was considered a performance and a mark of individuality to sing incessantly or to sit in one spot and stare at someone without blinking. (20)


The drama majors were still posing as if they were wait- ing for Godot, the photography students ran around lugging heavy camera bags, and the students from the classical Korean music department crowded into the small theater with their stringed gayageums, eyebrows penciled in, hair pulled into chignons, and faces drawn into prim expressions. (43)

You can’t do much better than that, and the book is written entirely in this unsparing and observant

The translation (by Sora Kim-Russell) seems quite effective, straddling that line between creating readability and maintaining representationality. For instance, the Korean habit of incessant (to me^^) use of rhetorical questions is not translated out by Kim-Russell and thus some of the ‘style’ of Korean discourse comes through clearly. Kim-Russell can be particularly and correctly vernacular in her English, while a;so not worrying about dipping into the Korean when necessary.

I thought about calling it “Sae Notes.” Sae means “new,” but it can also mean “between,” as well as “bird.” A bird flying freely through the heavens . . . But if I do that, should I call it “Sae Notes” or “Notes of Sae”? 39

Kim Russell also translates Korean structures in ways that make sense and will sound familiar to anyone who has ever lived in Korea:

“It’s a collection of works by Korean writers, dating back to the 1950s. There are a lot of pages. Won’t it be too much for you? (61)

LOL.. that last negative rhetorical question is classically Korean, and classically delivered. There is even one joke (often the most difficult thing to translate) that is so beautifully translated and delivered, that I sputtered as I read it.

What this all adds up to, is a book that is surprisingly easy to read, although at the same time highly literary.

5) Confession is good for the soul^^

I wasn’t a giant fan of Please Look After Mom. An astute reader of this site might not that I never reviewed it. I was ecstatic about its success and was happy for Kyung-Sook Shin  and Korean literature in general, which received a healthy boost from its success. But Please Look After Mom was simply not a book written for me as a reader. There is a reason it was an “Oprah” book, and that should pretty much explain it^^. I’ll Be Right There, with its wider range of characters and broader palette of concerns has the potential to sell beyond the limits of any mere ‘genre,’ which is a brilliant thing. This is a five-star book that I can honestly recommend for any reader.

My only wonder is if there will be a publicity effort on  I’ll Be Right There comparable to the one for Please Look After Mom? The Other Press is awesome, and I strongly suggest browsing their website. Here is their mission:

Other Press attracts authors who are guided by a passion to discover the limits of knowledge and imagination.

We publish novels, short stories, poetry, and essays from America and around the world that represent literature at its best. Our nonfiction books–should they be history, current events, popular culture or memoir–explore how psychic, cultural, historical, and literary shifts inform our vision of the world and of each other.
But they also seem relatively small, so it may be up to fans of International Literature in general, and Korean Literature in specific, to help make sure the word about this awesome book gets out.

But they also seem relatively small, so it may be up to fans of International Literature in general, and Korean Literature in specific, to help make sure the word about this awesome book gets out.

7 thoughts on “Kyung-Sook Shin’s (신경숙) Wonderful “I’ll Be Right There” (어디선가 나를 찾는 전화벨이 울리고) a review and confession.

  1. Great review – I agree that this was, oh, about a trillion times better than the-book-which-shall-not-be-named 😉 I also agree about the translation (which was another thing I didn’t really like about that other book…).

    It’d be great if this was another big hit, but I get the feeling that it won’t make quite as big a splash as her last one – sometimes, I really don’t understand how the world works…

    I’ll be reviewing this in early June (but probably in a little less detail!), and I hope there’ll be others out there too 🙂

  2. I think it will be a bigger hit than MOM because Shin has a great following and I’LL BE RIGHT THERE is such an ambitious work of literary genius. She has a great base to build from. A book has its own life. And I am Shin’s agent – her former publisher did not make PLEASE LOOK AFTER MOM a hit, SHIN did and she will again. OTHER PRESS is distributed, by the way, by Random House who distributed MOM, so it’s up to the fans who love her and those of us in the business who do too, to “big mouth” it. Books are hits because of word of mouth. Why predictions of the new book being less than instead of a prediction that it will be more than? The way things work is that if everyone is positive and buys the book and loves it — then it will be a huge hit. Let’s make that happen for Shin and not think otherwise, before it’s even published. Let’s tell everyone about it and spread the great word. Shin deserves it!

  3. Other Press is small but has one of the best publicity department in the publishing community and is known to place gorgeous ads in places such as the NYTB and the NYRB and because it publishes only few titles a year there is plenty of room to really give support to a book of the quality of I will be Right There which happens to be, by the way, passionately loved by its publisher. So no worries here.. small presses with a heart, a great team and Random House- Penguin as its distributor can do wonders.

  4. Barbara – I hope you’re right and that it does make a splash. I’ll be reviewing it at the start of June, and I’ve been very positive – about *this* book…

    Judith – Other Press is a great publishing house (this year, I’ve also read ‘A True Novel’ and ‘Where Tigers are at Home’ – two wonderful books). Hopefully, they can make this one into a hit too 🙂

  5. Tony… thanks for your comments and I look forward to your review. I didn’t have the problem with the translation of “Mom” that you did – I thought it was completely appropriate for the audience – in each of these books the correct (and good) translator was chosen.YMMV.^^
    Barbara and Judith – Good to hear that Other Press is under wide wings, as I said, what they do publish looks wonderful.. and I’m doing my share on the “big mouthing” and I’ve seen some work already shared on facebook, twitter, etc… I really do hope this one makes a big impact. I interviewed with TBS last week and said the next step for Korean lit is to create some ‘brand’ authors and I hope that Shin becomes one (I also highly rate Kim Young-ha for this).
    Events await the unfolding.^^

  6. Pingback: It’s all happening… press for Shin Kyung-sook’s I’ll Be Right There, tr. by Sora | subject object verb

  7. Pingback: Book review: I’ll be right there | London Korean Links

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