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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Kwon Yeo-sun

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To purchase Lemon

Title: Lemon
Author: Kwon Yeo-sun
Genre: Novel
Written: 2019 (Eng. 2021)
Length: 147 pages
Original in: Korean
Availability: Lemon - US
Lemon - UK
Lemon - Canada
  • Korean title: 레몬
  • Translated by Janet Hong

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Our Assessment:

B+ : creatively and effectively presented

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Mail . 7/10/2021 Stephanie Cross
The Guardian . 15/10/2021 Laura Wilson
The NY Times Book Rev. A 25/10/2021 Oyinkan Braithwaite
The Observer . 26/9/2021 Hephzibah Anderson
TLS . 17/6/2022 Y.G.Wuertz

  From the Reviews:
  • "Lemon is a darkly thriller-ish tale of aftermath (.....) (I)t is the (apparently) incidental details that linger longest, and most unsettlingly, in the mind." - Stephanie Cross, Daily Mail

  • "Discovering whodunnit isn't really the point here; Lemon is a subtle, often intense meditation on the after-effects of violence." - Laura Wilson, The Guardian

  • "A taut novella in eight vignettes, Lemon is not so much narrated as spilled, confessed, blurted out in the alternating voices of three women recalling a tragedy that took place when they were in high school. (...) In Janet Hong's translation, Kwon's writing is masterly. Her sentences are crisp, concise and potent; just one contains as much meaning as two or three of your average storyteller's. (...) Lemon, much like the fruit, is a bright, intense, refreshing story." - Oyinkan Braithwaite, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Though the narrative takes the form of a detective novel, it becomes a meditation on envy, grief and, this being South Korea, plastic surgery. Understated yet lingeringly eerie." - Hephzibah Anderson, The Observer

  • "Lemon is not primarily about uncovering a criminal. Instead Kwon lingers over the mundane details of lives submerged in trauma and violence." - Yoojin Grace Wuertz, Times Literary Supplement

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:

       Lemon is an unusually-structured little thriller, its eight chapters set between 2002 and 2019, glimpses across the years offered by a range of characters involved in the story. It is not so much about getting at the truth behind a notorious crime -- 'The High School Beauty Murder', as it came to be known -- as the aftermath of that case.
       The victim was teenager Kim Hae-on, her head bashed in in the summer of 2002. The main suspects are schoolmates Shin Jeongjun, in whose Lexus RX300 she was seen on the evening of her death, and Han Manu, who admits to having seen Hae-on in Jeongjun's car while on his scooter. The two boys are from different sides of the tracks and leave very different impressions -- Jeongjun's family very well-off, and he a popular and good student; Han Manu struggling in a poor, single-parent household, just getting by in school -- and, because of that and some inconsistencies in his testimony, the police hone in on Han Manu as their prime suspect.
       Hae-on's sister, Da-on, obsesses over what happened, and over the case, for all those years after it happened; she is the central character here -- alongside Hae-on, who is, however, all absence -- and several of the chapters are narrated by her, including the first, in which she imagines the 2002 interrogation of Han Manu, understanding:

Rather than try to find the real culprit, the detective would have considered whom he could -- or should -- crush and turn into the culprit. And that's exactly what he tried to do.
       The authorities were only half-successful: as determined as they were, they couldn't pin the crime on Han Manu; nevertheless, their actions in no small way contributed to crushing him. Shin Jeongjun was also cleared -- "Jeongjun's alibis were perfect" -- and, it seems, no other serious suspects were identified, the case soon going cold. Neither of the two main suspects returned to school -- but Shin Jeongjun's fate, sent to study in the United States, was a very different one from Han Manu's.
       Hae-on was a strange, ethereal girl. Da-on explains:
My sister was beautiful. Unforgettably so. She was perfection, bliss personified. But more than anything, she was at that mythical age: eighteen.
       Da-on, two years younger than her sister, was nevertheless the one who looked out for the older girl, and much of the household. Despite being so close to her, Hae-on also remained a mystery to her:
I had no idea what was going on in her head. It seemed she didn't think about anything. She did nothing and thought nothing. She considered no one and harmed no one. She wasn't interested in anyone nor bothered by anyone. She seemed most content and serene when she was left alone, doing absolutely nothing. The grace and detachment of her gestures -- observing someone wordlessly or giving a curt response and then looking away -- only enveloped her beauty in dignity.
       Their father died when Da-on was four, and their mother then raised them alone. Hae-on, beautiful already as a baby, was always the apple of her parents' eyes, and the mother never got over the death of her oldest daughter. Da-on -- who was: "short and dumpy, with a plain face", far less attractive than her older sister --, feeling also guilty about her failure to protect her older sister, then did what she could to replace Hae-on -- literally. Struggling with the loss she felt, she at first resorted to plastic surgery, changing her physical form to try to come to resemble Hae-on -- noting that:
Even if my mother had tried to stop me, I would have gone ahead, but she didn't try. If anything, she encouraged it, offering me the money for the surgery, despite having been rather stingy all her life.
       But: "turning my face into a crude patchwork of her features" only gets Da-on so far in offering her mother a Hae-on-substitute ..... (Eventually she also lets herself go again, realizing that she can't simply step into her sister's footsteps.)
       Already early on there are hints of Da-on being pro-active in a much more significant way: "That's why I did what I did", she notes early on, and not much later she already spells it out more clearly, mentioning the gift she gave her mother, ten years after her sister's death. But even as the nature of the gift is spelled out clearly, the circumstances aren't, and that's one of the mysteries that is then revealed (or, more accurately, clarified) as the novel proceeds.
       The novel moves forward in jumps, both in time -- the chapters are scenes from 2002, 2006, three from 2010, 2015, 2017, and then 2019 -- and focus. Da-on is central to many of them, either as narrator or as character, but several voices describe different encounters and experiences over the years; one chapter is simply one side of a telephone conversation, to a 24/7 Lifeline, for example. Characters variously encounter one other after long separations and it is the changes they observe that are often revealing, but Kwon also works a great deal with blank spaces, leaving much of the space both in and between accounts (and years) for the reader to fill in. Lemon is as much about what remains unspoken: Kwon offers many of the pieces to this puzzle, but doesn't spell things out fully -- appropriate for a novel in which the dominant figure -- the murdered girl -- is a presence only as memory and shadow.
       It's a neatly conceived and realized story, Kwon's approach and presentation making for a seemingly understated thriller that then nevertheless packs a full punch. As the time-frame suggests, Lemon goes far beyond just (the) murder. Class differences, familial love, guilt, desperation in various forms, and carefully plotted revenge are just some of what plays out here as the many characters touched by the crime deal with the long-lingering and (c)rippling aftereffects.
       Lemon is a lively, dark, and disturbing read, cleverly presented.

- M.A.Orthofer, 11 October 2021

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Lemon: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       South Korean author Kwon Yeo-sun (권여선) was born in 1965.

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© 2021-2022 the complete review

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