The Good Son
By You-Jeong Jeong; translated by Chi-Young Kim
Hachette, $33, 309 pages, ISBN 9781408709740
You-Jeong’s thrillers are extremely popular in South Korea and have been translated widely; strangely, this novel, her fourth, is the first one to be translated into English. But Australian readers might note that the cover tag-line – ‘how well does a mother know her son?’ – is rather misleading. It turns out that the mother of Yu-jin, a 25-year-old student who lives at home – knows him better than he knows himself.
In fact, the story starts with Yu-jin (who takes the idea of an unreliable narrator to new heights) waking to find himself covered in blood, and then finding his mother’s body. He cannot remember what happened; he assumes that he had one of his epileptic seizures during the period the murder occurred. He is off his meds, a crucial issue. He tries to ‘investigate’ but it is clear that he is the one responsible; his mother’s ghost even tells him so.
One lie leads to another, and the cover-ups spread. As he reads his mother’s journal he realises that the heavyweight drugs he has been taking for years were not to stop epilepsy but to suppress his psychopathy. As pieces of memory return – although it is not always clear what is real and what is imagined – he comes to understand that the various tragedies endured by the family were his doing, not accidents. And, he realises, he is alright with that.
As the violence spirals out of control the past comes into focus, and Yu-jin – even though he sees himself as the victim in all this – emerges as a deeply horrifying individual. And there is no justice here, no redemption, no forgiveness. He simply continues on his murderous way.
It is a labyrinthine story, although perhaps there is too much narrative dependence on the mother’s journal. Neither is there any real explanation for Yu-jin’s psychosis: he was just born that way, apparently. This makes sense within Korean culture but Western readers might want a bit more.
Nevertheless, The Good Son is a compelling read, with a chilling atmosphere and some unexpected twists. It’s not the best novel of the year, but it’s pretty good.