LOVE, WAR AND WOMANHOOD IN CRYSTAL HANA KIM’S IF YOU LEAVE ME.
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of IF YOU LEAVE ME from William Morrow in exchange for a candid review. All opinions are honest and mine alone.
Crystal Hana Kim’s If You Leave Me hit me harder than I expected. The debut novel is a harrowing account of the ravages of the Korean Civil War. Also in focus is the star-crossed love of Haemi Lee and her childhood friend, Kyunghwan. When the Korean civil war forces Haemi, her widowed mother and sickly brother to flee to a refugee camp, she finds solace in her nightly outings with Kyunghwan.
Haemi Lee is attractive, sharp-tongued, and fiery, and it is quickly evident to the reader that Kyunghwan is in love with her. However, so focused is he on finishing school that Kyunghwan doesn’t realize that Jisoo, his older, wealthier cousin has set his sights on Haemi. Eventually, Haemi marries Jisoo, choosing to forsake the boy she loves for the security of her family. The decision Haemi makes has rippling consequences for everyone involved.
What I liked
If You Leave Me reads like a love letter to Korea. Author Crystal Hana Kim unflinchingly portrays the squalor and uncertainty of wartime. Food is scarce and no one knows when the war will end. Yet, lives are lived. People fall in love, go to school, play with their siblings and marry. In that sense, Crystal Hana Kim’s If You Leave Me is a celebration of the resilience of spirit possessed by the Korean people.
War is ugly and mars everyone in this novel. People are forced into decisions and circumstances that change the trajectory of their lives. This is one of those books that you will desire to look away from occasionally, just to catch your breath, but only for a second, because you need to know what happens next. Kim peels back the layers of these characters with every page and in the end, they are raw, open and human before you.
Haemi Lee is a character that will remain with you forever. Restless, free spirited Haemi searches throughout this story for something that feels always unattainable — her autonomy. I felt frustrated by her unpredictable moods and sometimes poor choices, but every single time, my heart went out to this woman.
There’s not too much to be said without giving the entire story away, but If You Leave Me is unforgettable. Truly, this book is an eye opening, engulfing and heartbreaking exploration of what love means, what war does and what womanhood can feel like. There were times when I wished the book could be shorter, but prepare yourself for an immersive experience of the Korean Civil War. Prepare yourself to feel a bit raw at the end of this story, even as you welcome its meaningfulness.
If You Leave Me is out today, August 7, 2018.