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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

    

Diary of a Murderer

by
Kim Young-ha


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Diary of a Murderer



Title: Diary of a Murderer
Author: Kim Young-ha
Genre: Stories
Written: 2013 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 195 pages
Original in: Korean
Availability: Diary of a Murderer - US
Diary of a Murderer - UK
Diary of a Murderer - Canada
Ma mémoire assassine - France
Memorie di un assassino - Italia
  • And Other Stories
  • Korean title: 살인자의 기억법
  • Translated by Krys Lee
  • The title story was made into a movie, Memoir of a Murderer, in 2017, directed by Won Shin-yeon

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Our Assessment:

B : decent quartet of dark stories

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 22/1/2019 .


  From the Reviews:
  • "The collection, with its universally bleak stories, suffers from diminishing returns, but the title story is exceptional. The best stories are engrossing and disturbing, and are excellent showcases of Kimís talent." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Diary of a Murderer collects four longer stories, with the title piece taking up about half the volume. They all have a dark edge to them, and rely to a considerable degree on a sense of uncertainty -- beginning with the title story, in which the narrator, Kim Byeongsu, a veterinarian, is a now seventy year old man who is suffering from Alzheimer's, desperately trying to hold onto an increasingly elusive reality and sense of order as his mind goes.
       Kim Byeongsu opens his account by acknowledging that, for a long time, he was a serial killer. It's been nearly a quarter of a century since he killed anyone ("I quit killing and took up bowling"), but before then he was very active -- with bodies buried in the bamboo-overgrown backyard. The only closer human contact he has is with Eunhui, his much younger adopted stepdaughter -- the daughter of his last victim -- and though she looks after him, there is also a certain distance between the two. Nevertheless, Kim Byeongsu is deeply concerned about her -- especially when he senses that someone is after her, a man he is sure is out to kill her.
       As a patient suffering from already fairly well-advanced Alzheimer's, Kim Byeongsu is a doubly unreliable narrator: not only can we not be certain of whether or not he is telling the truth in his apparently lucid moments -- despite his apparent frankness -- but he himself can't be sure of his memories and perceptions. He desperately tries to hold onto his present-day experiences, eventually carrying around a tape recorder to remind himself of things, as well as keeping this journal, and leaving notes for himself. Try as he might, however, his illness makes it difficult to keep things straight, especially the most proximate events.
       Kim manages this quite well, making for a suspenseful story in which his protagonist desperately tries to save the one human who means something to him from the fate he sees for her -- even as the police's interest in his own old deeds are revived. Just how far his misperceptions and misunderstanding of the world go is only slowly suggested and, in his haziness -- all that the readers have to go on -- never fully, certainly revealed, making for a quite suspenseful read, in which readers long remain unsure whether his concerns -- specifically about his stepdaughter being a target -- are valid (seen from his perspective, they certainly seem to be), or whether he has other things to worry about, or, indeed, whether he's been creating an alternate reality of sorts for himself (and readers), built up out of the misremembered and misinterpreted.
       Kim captures the disorientation and claustrophobia-like sense of a world out of reach that comes with Alzheimer's well, his character sinking in and out of some lucidity, with the past an increasingly dominant presence over the present, which he can barely remember moment to moment. Though he seems to feel little guilt about his past misdeeds, Kim eventually is clearly suggesting that his protagonist's conscience has reshaped the reality he now lives even more than it initially seemed, to somehow deal with the horrible things he has done. Kim doesn't offer the reader any certainty -- appropriately, given his character's ever increasing lack of sense of what is real and true any longer as the novella progresses to its conclusion -- but there's enough suggested here to make for a quite successful little work.
       'The Origin of Life' and 'Missing Child' also rely on uncertainty, including specifically uncertainty about identity. In 'The Origin of Life' Seojin becomes the lover of Ina, a childhood schoolmate who is now married to an abusive husband; eventually, Seojin is threatened by a man he assumes is that husband -- but things don't play out quite as he imagines they would. In 'Missing Child', a young boy is kidnapped when a couple go shopping with him, an overwhelming trauma that completely changes the course of their lives -- "The child was the black hole of their life, that swallowed everything up" --, with the mother descending into mental illness -- a situation that does not resolve itself positively when the boy is found, a decade later.
       The final story, 'The Writer' is similarly black, but with a humorous edge to it, the narrator a successful writer whose latest manuscript is long overdue. He has writer's block -- and the fact that his editor is his former wife, and that she's being pressured by the new owner of the publishing house isn't helping either. When he mentions an idea off the top of his head his former wife eagerly embraces it, and when he says he needs to do research in the United States it's soon arranged that he can use the apartment the new publisher owns in the New York. The writer is a bit reluctant to go, but decides it's his best option -- but things get complicated when the estranged wife of the publisher shows up, too, in that apartment with only one bed ..... Unsurprisingly, it eventually comes down to quite a confrontation, the writer left between a rock and a hard place (and, yes, finding himself eventually crushed there).
       'Diary of a Murderer' is strong and long enough to be a stand-alone, and as such stands in some contrast to the other three stories here -- which are fine enough, as such, but in the shadow of this one, much bigger story, come across more as padding. Violence -- mostly fairly gratuitous -- isn't so much front and center here, but certainly casts a stark shadow in the background. And each of the four pieces features some form of brain damage to at least one of the characters, whether the protagonist's Alzheimer's in the title piece or the man left comatose in 'The Origins of Life'. Kim uses these different mental unbalances reasonably well -- but it also allows him to take quite a few liberties, especially in the title piece, and sometimes offers a too easy way out for at least parts of his story (as in 'Missing Child').
       Diary of a Murderer is a decent collection, with the more substantial title-piece the stand-out and perhaps not quite enough variety to the quartet.

- M.A.Orthofer, 28 March 2019

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Links:

Diary of a Murderer: Reviews: Memoir of a Murderer - the film: Other books by Kim Young-ha under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Korean literature

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About the Author:

       Korean author Kim Young-ha (김영하) was born in 1968.

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© 2019 the complete review

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