Hye Young-Pyun: 선의 법칙 (The Law of Lines)
This novel follows two young women who have a tragedy in their lives. Se-oh lives in a ramshackle house with her father. She also lives a very secluded life, rarely going out. Indeed, she gets very nervous when she does go out and cannot wait to get back home. Her father has just bought her a new, padded coat, which she likes. However, on returning home, she finds that her house has burned down. Her father is in hospital with serious burns.
A police officer talks to her later and says that it is possible that he deliberately started the fire. Apparently, unknown to Se-oh, he was very much in debt and tried to kill himself. It seems there was insurance on the house, so some money would be forthcoming. However, Se-oh has her suspicions that it was the debt collector – a man she was aware of but not aware of why he was coming to the house – who may have started the fire and taken out the insurance policy.
Meanwhile, we are also following Ki-jeong Shin, a teacher. She does not particularly like teaching, not least because much of it is not teaching but work such as grading. (By the time she realised it wasn’t right for her, her job had already turned her into someone unsuited for any other career.) She is summoned to the headmaster’s office, where she learns that various students have been shop-lifting from a nearby shop. She has to talk to one of the boys, Do-jun. She knows him well. She does not like him particularly as he is very cocky but he does keep giving her presents. She wonders why he steals, as his family is well-off.
He is initially reluctant to talk but gradually she drags the story out of him. She is highly critical, saying that he has implicated others, as he says he gives most of what he steals to the poorer students. She tells him they might be in trouble for receiving stolen goods. He then points out that all the gifts he gave her were also stolen. She is just digesting this news, when her phone rings. It is a police officer, telling her that her sister’s body has been found in a nearby river.
Her sister was thirteen years younger than her. She was not her mother’s daughter. Indeed, her father turned up with her and her mother had to bring the child up, which she did, albeit reluctantly. Not surprisingly, the sister did not receive much love. She was always wayward. She would disappear for long periods and return suddenly, always with the same answer: One thing led to another… She seemed to have reformed, re-enrolling at university and pursuing her studies and other activities. However, when Ki-jeong Shin contacted the university and the various clubs she claimed to belong to, they knew nothing of her. On her mobile phone, there are two numbers: Ki-jeong’s and another one that does not answer when Ki-jeong phones it.
The rest of the book involves the two stories. Ki-jeong tries to track down the person who made the mysterious call and anyone who might have known her sister. Se-oh tries to track down the debt collector who, she feels, drove her father to his death. Inevitably the two stories intersect and inevitably we get diversions and misleading clues and we think we know who had done what, when, in fact, we do not. It is not helped by Ki-jeong having problems at school and by the fact that she has kept her sister’s death from her mother.
Both women are determined that their story is the right one, namely that the debt collector was responsible for Se-oh’s father’s death and that Ki-jeong’s sister killed herself. It is their determination that drives them to find out the truth but, not surprisingly, the truth is not quite as clear-cut as they may hope.
There are two key messages here. The first is that poverty, particularly debt, is devastating – devastating as regards life, relationships, housing, self-esteem, mental health and employment. Indeed, we can say, or, at least this book partially says, poverty kills. As one character says People don’t end up poor because they’re stupid. They end up poor because the system is fucked. Besides Ki-jeong’s sister and Se-oh’s father, there are other deaths in this book. The second is that the way to happiness, at least in part, is based on sound relationships, with friends, partners and/or family. The not very frequent rays of happiness in this book are as a result of such relationships. The two are often incompatible but not in this book.
The conclusion of the book is There were good times, and there were bad times. Sometimes you could rely on others, and sometimes they disappointed you. Sometimes they filled you with joy, and sometimes they made you angry. That’s what normal relationships were. Before we get there, however, there is a lot of misery, No-one in this book can be said to be really happy though a few get by if they have a good friend, a good partner or a good relationship with a family member.
Like his other books, this one is as much about people who lose control of their lives and try to get it back in ways that seem to them the only way out but, to us, seem less than wise. In many cases things get worse, much worse in some cases. Hye Young-Pyun is a superb story-teller and leaves us guessing while, at the same time, giving us an excellent, albeit grim picture of a certain segment of Korean society.
I am mystified by the English title. The Korean means The Law of Goodwill. I have no idea what the English title means. Lines is one of those words that has multiple meanings in English but none of them seem apposite to me. Ignore the title. The book is superb.
First published 2015 by Munhak Tongne
First English translation by Arcade in 2020
Translated by Sora Kim-Russell