If You Leave Me
By Crystal Hana Kim
William Morrow Books, $26.99, available Tuesday, August 7
Crystal Hana Kim’s emotionally riveting debut novel, If You Leave Me, is a tale about war, family, and forbidden love, that is timely and timeless.
It has the honor of being an #OwnVoices work from a first-generation Korean who grew up in Queens and Long Island.
If You Leave Me is the unforgettable saga of two ill-fated lovers in Korea and the heartbreaking choices they’re forced to make in the years surrounding the civil war that still haunts us today.
Kim’s characters are relatable and utterly alive, especially the female protagonist Haemi, who struggles to juggle duty and the traditions of the past, while learning what it means to be a woman in a new and modern Korea.
When the communist-backed army from the north invades her home, sixteen-year-old Haemi Lee, along with her widowed mother and ailing brother, is forced to flee to a refugee camp along the coast.
Every night, for a few hours, she escapes her family’s makeshift home and tragic circumstances with her childhood friend, Kyunghwan.
Kim alternates between telling the story from Haemi’s and Kyunghwan’s points of views, and the chapters are titled with their names and year that part of the story is set in, creating the feel of a conversation.
Kim, in this part titled “Haemi 1951,” writes, “Hyunki (her brother) waved his straw bag a pretended to catch invisible dragonflies as we strolled to the market. With him, the walk took twenty minutes instead of ten, but he prized the visits, the chance to leave the house.
“‘Can I look for Jisoo-hyung when we get there?’ he asked. ‘Watching you trade is boring.’
“‘No wandering away.’ I hadn’t seen the boys in days. Maybe Kyunghwan had finally confessed our nighttime adventures. Maybe they had given up on me. I caught Hyunki by the shoulders and tickled him. ‘I don’t want you to get lost in the crowds.’
“Hyunki jumped and tried to tickle me back. ‘Hyung doesn’t like me because I’m sick?’
“‘No, I probably scared him with my crankiness at dinner,’ I said. ‘I don’t want to see him anyway.’
“It was true, for both of them. If Jisoo or Kyunghwan was at the market, that’s what I would say. I don’t want to see you anymore.
“Hyunki wove from one side of the dirt path to the other, kicking stones. ‘But Jisoo-hyung’s my friend, too.’
“I hitched the strap of my bag of barley higher on my shoulder. ‘Too bad. Nuna says no.’
“He swooped in front of me and pulled my hands through his bag’s handles. ‘Caught you.’ Then, holding me captive, he led me along the path. ‘When I’m old, I’m going to boss you around. Come on, cow. This way.’
“I bellowed like a bull calf. ‘Eum-meh.’ Hyunki laughed and copied me.
“As we lowed back and forth, a sallow cat slunk past with a mouse gripped in its teeth. I felt closer to that rodent than a cow, caught between Jisoo and Kyunghwan, Hyunki and myself. ‘If you could boss me around, what would you make me do?’ I asked.
“‘Order you to get meat this time! I’m sick of bones.’
“‘Then you need to stay by my side and look hungry for the butcher,’ I said.
“Hyunki unlooped my hands. ‘But I am hungry.’ He stared at me, his face lusterless, even in the sunlight.
“I touched his forehead and tried to push aside my guilt. ‘Always so hungry!’ I squeezed his stomach. ‘Do you have tiny creatures in there eating up your food?’
“He laughed, wormed out of my grasp, and skipped ahead. I let him. He drank his ginseng tea without complaint these days and had slept easy for three nights straight. Three nights I could have sneaked out but didn’t.”
Kyunghwan, focused on finishing school doesn’t realize his older and wealthier cousin, Jisoo, has his sights set on the beautiful and spirited Haemi, and is determined to marry her before joining the fight.
As Haemi becomes a wife, then a mother, her decision to forsake the boy she always loved for the security of her family sets off a dramatic saga that has profound effects for future generations.
Kim delivers a richly told and deeply moving story in If You Leave Me, a stunning portrait of war and refugee life, a passionate and universal romance, and a heartrending exploration of one woman’s search for individuality in a rapidly changing world.