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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


I'll Be Right There

Shin Kyung-Sook

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To purchase I'll Be Right There

Title: I'll Be Right There
Author: Shin Kyung-Sook
Genre: Novel
Written: 2010 (Eng. 2014)
Length: 324 pages
Original in: Korean
Availability: I'll Be Right There - US
I'll Be Right There - UK
I'll Be Right There - Canada
I'll Be Right There - India
Io ci sarò - Italia
Primavera helada - España
  • Korean title: 어디선가 나를 찾는 전화벨이 울리고
  • Translated by Sora Kim-Russell

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Our Assessment:

B : fairly effective if also terribly manipulative acccount of an age

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Independent . 19/6/2014 Lucy Scholes
The LA Times . 30/5/2014 Hector Tobar
The NY Times Book Rev. . 8/6/2014 Nami Mun

  From the Reviews:
  • "South Korea's troubled history looms large in the background, the fates of many of Shin's characters are directly tied up in the politics of their actions, but to call this a political novel would be to overlook the universal story it tells of young love, youthful dreams, ambitions and ideals. (...) I'll Be Right There is a haunting story of adolescent entanglements that will speak to readers everywhere." - Lucy Scholes, The Independent

  • "Shin uses a spare, deeply emotional literary style in I'll Be Right There to take up themes of loss and memory. Her novel gives a sense of what it's like to have a poet's soul in a country that always seems to be on a war footing, in a perpetual conflict with enemies both foreign and domestic. (...) Shin writes wonderfully about intimacy and the longing of lonely people. At its best, I'll Be Right There is a hopeful work about the power of art, friendship and empathy to provide meaning to people's lives." - Hector Tobar, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Boyfriends disappear. Siblings self-immolate. Plants wilt. Trees need to be saved. And so do Yoon and her three friends. (...) Even though the novel holds more dialogue and diegesis than plot revelations, itís somehow still a page-turner, such is Shinís gift for storytelling, as well as her careful cultivation of motifs." - Nami Mun, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In an Author's Note at the end of I'll Be Right There Shin Kyung-Sook acknowledges that: "The story takes place in the 1980s and early 1990s in South Korea", but also notes: "in this novel, I do not specifically reveal the era or elucidate Korea's political situation at the time". Indeed, there's a clear effort to give a sort of timeless feel to I'll Be Right There, not tying it to any specifics or any era, as Shin means her novel, and her characters, to reflect not just that specific era but a more general, common age and stage -- in both the lives of nations and individuals.
       There are several tiers to the novel. It begins with an adult Jung Yoon hearing from a friend from college, Yi Myungsuh, for the first time in eight years; he calls to tell her that their beloved Professor Yoon is on his deathbed. This brings back memories of her college days, and her time with Myungsuh and a close friend of theirs, Yoon Miru, and most of the novel looks back at those times, not only in her account but, for example, in chapters in which Myungsuh had chronicled those same events, in his 'Brown Notebook'. Several letters from another friend of Yoon's are also reproduced, so several first-person voices mix over the course of the novel.
       [A note about Korean names: the English translation of the novel adheres to Korean practice of the family name coming before the given name: Jung Yoon's family name is 'Jung', and her friends call her Yoon. Given that two other (unrelated) characters -- the professor and Yoon Miru -- have a family name which is identical to her given name ... it can be a bit confusing. (Oddly, too, the author's name is printed in 'Western' form in and on the book (though not in this review) -- her family name is 'Shin', but 'Kyung-Sook Shin': "is the author's preferred Romanization" says Wikipedia -- making for an odd sort of inconsistency.)]
       I'll Be Right There is characterized by drifting characters with limited personal ties and by disturbing deaths. The death toll is exceptionally high, with quite a few that are, or can be characterized as, suicides. Where characters don't off themselves, they suffer painful prolonged deaths: Professor Yoon lingers a bit longer than expected on his hospital bed, but it's not a pretty sight, and Yoon herself came to the big city because her dying mother sent her away, so the teenage girl wouldn't have to watch her agonizing death (which drags on for a couple of years). Hell, there's even a cat (named after Emily Dickinson) and by the end ... well, the cat isn't doing so well. Shin lays it on thick, and she lays it on repeatedly; so too with the characters pushing loved ones away -- and with those that get pushed away getting burned in the process (sometimes literally ...), wounds that are almost impossible to heal, just like Yoon's mother pushing Yoon away continues to haunt her long after her mom's death.
       This is a novel full of characters as islands and adrift, and often suffering from the loss of a close loved one. From solitary man Professor Yoon to the heavily baggage-laden Miru (even Emily the (deaf) cat is hers ...) to Yoon's childhood friend Dahn, who winds up in the military, there seems to be a force pushing characters apart. For a while Yoon, Miru, and Myungsuh do form a tight circle, even writing stories together, but the center cannot hold and they are hurled apart by the centrifugal forces, ever further apart from each other. Death makes for some finality, but it almost seems that as often as not characters only learn of it long after it happened, the disconnect between them already so great that they don't even get that news in a timely fashion.
       The drift is physical too: Yoon, in particular, spends much of her time exploring the city on foot. It is a time of student demonstrations and turmoil, and Yoon and Myungsuh both get caught up in some of that. University only sometimes offers the security of routine and a place of safety, and Yoon, Myungsuh, and Miru often don't attend class.
       Ties are loose: Yoon's mother sent her away as a teen, and while Myungsuh, Miru, and Miru's sister lived together for a while that didn't last. Yoon went to live with a newly-married cousin, and while the new couple's is the most stable relationship in the novel -- with the cousin even getting pregnant -- it's no surprise that the husband is literally flighty, and spends a great deal time away from home (he is a pilot). Even Professor Yoon abandons his students, resigning from his position. These young characters are offered few stable holds -- and can't seem to grasp those that might be possible.
       Shin evokes these uncertainties -- of the time, of that age -- very well, and many of the individual scenes and episodes are very good. Even the progression is quite moving -- but the ambition, of the different perspectives and voices, and of the different threads that she sometimes loses track of (on purpose -- that's part of the point) becomes a bit much. I'll Be Right There is too overtly manipulative; it's entirely different from Please Look After Mom and yet by the end it feels like the same old thing all over again -- a different story, but all the (too) familiar tricks and turns.
       Shin tries to relate a great deal here, and there's some sense of her not quite getting to it all. For all the significance of Professor Yoon and his love for literature and Yoon and her friend's embrace of that, not enough is done with that, and the students' great love and admiration for the professor (witness the crowds at the hospital) feels under-explained. Yoon is relatively young, but feels exceptionally immature in her inability to understand others very well, as much remains very much on the surface, with little sense of insight on her part (which is, in the main, what readers are being served); the use of other first-person voices adds a bit of texture, but hardly enough.
       The conclusion suggests the possibility of healing, a hopeful end to an atomized world of practically no survivors (almost no one is left standing by the end, with dad in the nursing home and even the cat on its last legs ...). Sure, it's effectively poignant -- but it's also just one last manipulative turn; it's also just a hopeful promise, left dangling, open-ended: readers may like to see it as a happy end, but since Shin doesn't see it through ... who knows ?
       I'll Be Right There is a good and often engaging read of twentysomethings adrift in tumultuous times. Incident-rich -- even with all the drift -- it still sticks too much to the surface. There are hints of the darkness -- most obviously in the teenage Yoon blacking out the windows in the room she had while she lived her cousin's (a period Shin has apparently covered in another novel) -- but with a main character (and main, if not sole, narrator) who remains so disengaged it feels like Shin is never quite willing to take the necessary plunge into its heart.

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 June 2014

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I'll Be Right There: Reviews: Shin Kyung-sook: Other books by Shin Kyung-sook under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Korean literature

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About the Author:

       Popular Korean author Shin Kyung-sook (신경숙) was born in 1963.

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© 2014 the complete review

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