How many lives do we touch? What impact do we have on others, and what do we leave behind? Set in the aftermath of the murder of the most beautiful girl in school, Lemon, written by Yeo-sun Kwon and translated by Janet Hong, seeks to explore the terrain of the emptiness of death’s eventuality. While an unsolved murder lies at the novel’s heart, the book is more wake than crime caper. It’s a slow burn through the characters most impacted by the killing, tracing their various trajectories in the years that follow. A lot is touched on here, from class politics to the criminal justice system, but it’s the feminist lens with which Kwon regards the tragedy, and the sensitivity and subtlety she brings to her characters that propels the novel.
It’s in the Summer of 2002 that Kim Hae-on was found dead. The body of the girl known school-wide for her staggering, dazzling beauty is discovered in a park, dead due to cranial blunt-force trauma. But despite her renown, only a few students have any clues as to what might have happened to her. First is Shin Jeongjun, a rich accountant’s son, who was driving Hae-on in his sister’s Lexus just hours before her untimely death. The second is Han Manu, a poor delivery boy, who might’ve seen the pair while driving his delivery scooter back from a job.
This is the setup, but Kwon makes it clear that discovering the truth of who did it is not her aim. Instead, we follow the three women most affected over the 17 years that follow Hae-on’s death: her younger sister, Da-on; her classmate and Da-on’s literature club mentor, Sanghui (who’s referred to in the novel by the affectionate term “eonni”); and the second-prettiest girl in school, Yun Taerim. Each has their own trauma from the event, a catalyst that caused their lives to splinter off into drastically different directions. The novel jumps between the perspectives of the three women in the years after: Taerim in therapy, Sanghui trying to move on, and Da-on seeking truth.
Despite a number of interviews with suspects and witnesses, and a few promising leads, the case stalls with police. Frustrated by the case’s lack of progress, Da-on decides to take matters into her own hands. Sanghui notes early in the novel that despite being the younger sister, Da-on acted as a sort of guardian for her absent-minded older sister, so Hae-on’s death hit her especially hard. She pours over interview transcripts from the case that became known as the High School Beauty Murder. The official investigation went cold, as Jeongjun’s alibi of spending the rest of the night at a restaurant and bar held up, and despite inconsistencies with Han Manu’s testimony, no clear evidence or motive could be found. Eventually, Da-on decides to seek out Manu for herself.
She finds him with relative ease, but the man she finds is a figure deserving of empathy more than scorn. Cancer has taken a leg from Manu, and he works a difficult labor job at a nearby factory. Nothing to hide, he tells Da-on the truth: his testimony was flawed because it was relayed into his ear by Taerin, riding along the back of his scooter, peering into Jeongjun’s car out of jealousy. Manu was simply happy to be along for the ride. This revelation brings Da-on some peace, but perhaps greater is the comfort she gets from falling in with Manu and his half-sister Seonu. Manu’s alibi relies on the time he got home from his delivery job, but with Seonu fast asleep at the time, confirmation is difficult to find. However, in a heart-to-heart with Da-on, Seonu tells her that the morning after the crime, she woke to Korean sugar-twist donuts waiting for her, a frequent gift from a caring brother; in her eyes, assuring Manu’s innocence. And that seems to be good enough for Da-on, too. She continues following the threads at her own pace, but no longer obsessively hunting for the culprit.
The novel also has several sections from the perspective of Taerin, Manu’s passenger on that fateful day. Now married to Jeongjun, her sections are the most diverse in the book, presented as one-sided conversations with a doctor, almost stream-of-consciousness monologues that weave thoughts on privilege, life—and most importantly, God—between Taerim’s memories of the case.
Each of the novel’s main characters has been affected by the murder in different ways, as well as their own thoughts and memories of Hae-on and her death, and Kwon’s ability to convey the manifestations of this trauma is laudable. My favorite of these characterizations comes to us from Da-on about her mother. When Hae-on was about to be born, the name the family had settled on had been Hye-eun. However, due to a bout of postpartum sickness, the registration was delayed by a month, and during this time their father began calling their newborn Hae-on instead, in part because of his country accent. Eventually, this name sticks, and in the aftermath of her death, Da-on’s mother becomes obsessed with it, convinced that the lower-class name somehow fated her into her eventual sad demise. This manifestation of the class system’s effect on people’s lives serves not only as one of the most poignant sections in the book, but also a resonant throughline.
Meanwhile, the sections from Sanghui’s perspective add necessary nuance to the book. Her calm, insightful demeanor, and her commentary on her memories both of her school days and her occasional post-graduation interactions with Da-on provide some welcome solid ground in a novel concerned with the very nature of truth. It’s Sanghui who tells us of the stark contrast between the Kim sisters: Hae-on’s otherworldly beauty, but near-airheaded distance, and Da-on’s homely looks and spirited disposition. Sanghui also charts Da-on’s changes throughout the novel, as the two cross paths as Da-on sees fit. In the wake of Hae-on’s death, Da-on becomes obsessed with her sister’s appearance, and has plastic surgery done to try and match her visage. Later in the novel, Sanghui notes another complete reversal of Da-on’s appearance, back to a healthier weight.
Kwon’s focus is so squarely on the three women that almost everything in the periphery fades away. Jeongjun is never heard from directly and only spoken of by his wife, Taerim, in her monologue sections. We get a bit more of Manu, as Da-on recounts one of his interview sessions before speaking with him directly, but even his story is told primarily filtered by not only Da-on, but also by his half-sister, Seonu. His tale is as tragic as any characters in the book, an intentional flattening that only heightens this effect. But the loss most felt, of course, is Hae-on herself. The dead can’t speak for themselves, and we never hear from her. Sanghui describes the dynamic between the sisters, which Da-on expands upon in her sections. But the picture we get of Hae-on is deliberately incomplete. She’s a girl whose beauty isolated her from her classmates, was doted on by her parents, often noted to be so lost in thought bordering on carelessness, and loved and admired by her sister. What was going on in her head the night that ended with it being bashed in remains as much a mystery for us as it does for the rest of Kwon’s characters.
There’s a lot contained in this slim volume. It’s far more thoughtful than a simple murder mystery whose pleasure lies primarily in unpuzzling the whodunnit. Lemon is being compared to PARASITE, no doubt due to that film’s reception, but I think BURNING is a closer comparison. Both stories feature the disappearance of a woman, and both a rich and poor boy as suspects, but unlike BURNING, it’s the women here who take center stage. The writing in Lemon can feel Murakami-esque, at times; deeply introspective, pouring over memories, with more questions than answers. But it’s Kwon’s subtlety that gives the book its strength. She doesn’t make clear the exact nature of the relationships between characters, lay bare all their thoughts or suspicions, or make clear what is the objective reality; she doesn’t need to. Instead, we’re given incomplete shards, whose pleasure comes from not the picture they’ll come to create, but the gaps between them that can never be made whole again.
By Kwon Yeo-Sun
October 26, 2021
Ian is a writer based out of Chicago, and one of the Daily Editors at The Chicago Review of Books. His work has appeared in The LA Review of Books, Input Magazine, The Kenyon Review, Chicago Reader, among others. He is working on a novel. Follow him on Twitter as @IanJBattaglia.