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‘The Good Son’ by You-Jeong Jeong: When Yu-jin woke up

If this novel is anything to go by, Korean psychological crime fiction is an exciting sub-genre that cuts through the banality of standard Western thrillers

From cannibals like Hannibal Lecter to super-villains like Voldemort, our fascination with psychopaths is something thriller writers understand well. But what interests Korean writer You-Jeong Jeong is not the plot as it advances from murder to murder but one man’s history of violence. Elizabeth George is perhaps the best known exponent of this approach. She pulled it off brilliantly in What Came Before He Shot Her (2006), though with a non-psychopathic killer. While George’s exploration of criminality was largely sociological, Jeong’s focus is on the interiority of the killer.

Claustrophobic journey

Yu-jin is 26 years old and lives with his mother. When the novel opens, he is about to wake up, wading out from nightmares into reality. But something about this particular morning feels different. Not right. When he fell asleep at night, Yu-jin was an ex-athlete and over-protected son and brother. But as he awakes, confusion over the events of the previous night takes over his identity, and his very sense of reality is suffused by an overpowering odour of blood. This stench pervades the entire narrative.

The author takes you on a claustrophobic journey that begins (and ends) inside the mind of a healthy young adult as he bears witness to the gradual unravelling of his personhood — his understanding of himself and others. Yu-jin’s illness — closely

monitored by his Mother and ‘Auntie’ — is a mystery to him. He believes it to be epilepsy and has never understood his mother’s need to hide this fact. He copes with the strictures of a dictatorial mother by skipping his medication, a seemingly harmless form of rebellion. His ‘condition’ severely curtails his social life, and together with other house rules such as a nine-o’clock curfew, pushes him ever closer to the two women he has grown up with.

There is a cultural element at play here that is distinctively Asian. A child in a Western household may not readily accept a mother’s decision as final, especially when it has to do with his own interests. And the depiction of this dynamic in The Good Son is a refreshing take on the mother-son bond, even with its obvious nod to Psycho’s Norman Bates. The only semblance of ‘normalcy’ available to Yu-jin is his adoptive brother who, predictably, is everything Yu-jin is not — easygoing, generous, and socially adept.

Restless sea

Jaded palates will immediately notice the skill with which Jeong builds the story, without recourse to expository prose or lengthy flashbacks. The plot twists are delivered with panache, and the mind of the protagonist — confused, dazed, dangerous — sucks you into the fog-covered streets of a Korean port city where the restless sea becomes an emblem of the chaos inside a neat family apartment.

If The Talented Mr. Ripley taught us one thing, it is that psychopaths aren’t born but made by circumstance. Yu-jin’s trajectory is in a sense a callback to the dark days of psychoanalysis, when labels lightly used had the power to ruin lives. Is Yu-jin the cold, calculative killer the word ‘psychopath’ suggests? Or is he a victim of a parent’s need to control behaviour in a way that doesn’t disrupt societal expectations? Over three days, Yu-jin navigates these questions the best he can, often returning to his happiest memories in search of answers that would ultimately prove grievous.

Classic page-turner

The only irritant that distracts the reader sometimes is the oversimplified prose — a common problem with translated texts. (This is the first of Jeong’s books to be translated into English.) Even so, Yu-jin’s story is the stuff of classic page-turners. If The Good Son is anything to go by, Korean psychological crime fiction is clearly an exciting sub-genre that cuts through the banality of standard Western thrillers with an intelligence and unorthodoxy typically seen only in literary fiction.

Incidentally, the lately discredited thriller writer Dan Mallory (aka A.J. Finn), who has himself been compared to the duplicitous Mr. Ripley, calls the book “a cool, crafty, did-he-do-it thriller”, raising its pick-me-up appeal. Jeong has also been likened to Stephen King, a comparison that’s not wholly justified except as an identifier for readers. As she builds up a global following with more translations, one wouldn’t be surprised if Jeong’s work becomes a category by itself.

The Good Son;You-Jeong Jeong, Hachette, ₹499

sampath.g@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Jul 2, 2020 7:29:18 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/the-good-son-by-you-jeong-jeong-when-yu-jin-woke-up/article28293108.ece

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