Kim Yeon-Su

If the Waves Belong to the Sea

Munhakdogne Publishers/Korea. 250 pages English. 324 pages in Korean. Translated by Deborah Smith, 3 chapter partial available. 

      Born in South Korea in 1987, Camilla was adopted at six months by an American couple and brought up in the United States. When Camilla is 21 her adoptive mother Ann dies, and a few years later she meets Japanese-American adoptee Yuichi. These events, and the six boxes which her adoptive father Eric fills with her childhood things and sends to her, spur her to investigate her past, initially by becoming a writer. She then decides to reconnect with her roots by returning to Korea and studying the language there. Camilla and Yuichi travel to her birthplace, the southern port city of Jinnam, in an attempt to track down her parents. She visits the school where she is convinced her birth mother studied, but her investigations are hampered both by her imperfect grasp of Korean and by the wall of silence and evasion thrown up by the Jinnam natives, a compound of shame, distrust, and cultural differences. Eventually, Camilla learns something of the truth: only 17 when she gave birth to Camilla, her birth mother Ji-eun committed suicide shortly after her baby was adopted. 

    Turning her attentions to her father, Camilla tracks down some of her mother's former teachers and schoolmates, one of whom is now a filmmaker, her films intimately impressed with the tragedy of Ji-eun's death. But the information they give is contradictory, complicating the picture by naming different people as Camilla's father. Piecing together fragments of the various scandals which seem to have surrounded Camilla's parents – including the death of her maternal grandfather during a strike at the shipyard, when the workers were being oppressed – Camilla comes to realise the extent to which her family's story is bound up with that of the place and its people, with traditional customs, recent history, and present conditions combining to form of web of influences. The truth is forever postponed, and just like Camilla, the reader is kept in the dark, both groping in the murky fog of the past for a 'truth' which may or may not exist.      If the Waves Belong to the Sea offers the perfect lens through which a reader with little or no prior knowledge of South Korea can encounter this fascinating and surprising country, un-romanticised and un-exoticised. A haunting, highly literary meditation on the mutability of memory and the elusive nature of the truth, If the Waves is also tense and compulsively readable – the combination of critical and commercial acclaim surrounding its publication in Korea is highly likely to be replicated with the English translation.