Skip to main content

If You Leave Me

Review

If You Leave Me

In the soft slivers of morning light, your feet may carry you out to the river. When you blur your eyes, still bleary from sleep, you might see the child you once were, splashing and careless. Blink and she's a teenager, smoking, lying next to him with her legs askew and skirt disheveled, gazing up at the bright gray sky. You sink deeper into awakening, into the creaks and rolls of your body, and the images fade but don't disappear. You retreat, begin to prepare breakfast for the man you married and the children you bore him, and live the life you've found yourself living.

Crystal Hana Kim's debut novel, IF YOU LEAVE ME, bites with poise, grace and bitterness. It spans one family over just one generation, but Kim's masterful storytelling evokes breadth and scope as it weaves intertwining voices through chapters and time. The book is an evocation of what could have been, what almost was, and the making and unmaking of choices in an individual's life that ripple outward in quiet, vicious devastation.

"IF YOU LEAVE ME is a gorgeous, complex novel of home, identity, love and sacrifice."

In 1951, 16-year-old Haemi is forced to flee to a refugee camp as the communists invade her village. Her father has been killed. Her mother is unwell, racked with mourning, but not as sick as her baby brother, Hyunki. Every night, she flees into the woods to meet her best friend, Kyunghwan. They smoke cigarettes, wander and speak freely. With him, she can be herself. She can wear pants when she chooses, smoke until the filthiest part of the cigarette, curse, speak her mind, curl up in his arms when the night chill comes. She can only meet him on nights when Hyunki falls asleep peacefully --- otherwise, she sacrifices her evenings to stay in and tend to him.

Kyunghwan is determined to stay in school, study and make something of himself, even as the conflicts of the Korean War deepen and learning begins to seem like a vestige. His elder cousin, Jisoo, aims to join the fighting --- but not before he takes a wife of his own, and his heart is set on Haemi. He promises her that if she marries him, he will procure medical assistance for Hyunki, and with her mother's urging at her back, Haemi's choice is no choice at all. She marries him.

The novel spans the next 16 years, filled with near-misses, accidental tragedies, and brief breaths of joy and strength. The characters are messy, full beings, and Kim breathes real life into each of them --- most of all, perhaps, into Haemi, who became one of my most favorite literary characters. Kim has spoken about how women during this era of Korea (and in many spheres still today) are expected to be docile, servile and acquiescent. So many are not this, or perhaps present this but do not come to it easily. Haemi does what she believes she should do, and beneath her skin lives an ever-present shimmer of rage --- a deep mourning for what could have been. Her relationship with motherhood is refreshing and heartrending to read. Kim grants her a voice and does not shy away from her imperfections or her justified frustration, anger and heartache.

IF YOU LEAVE ME is a gorgeous, complex novel of home, identity, love and sacrifice.

Reviewed by Maya Gittelman on August 10, 2018

If You Leave Me
by Crystal Hana Kim

  • Publication Date: August 7, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow
  • ISBN-10: 006264517X
  • ISBN-13: 9780062645173