I'll Be Right There


How friendship, European literature, and a charismatic professor defy war, oppression, and the absurd
Set in 1980s South Korea amid the tremors of political revolution, I’ll Be Right There follows Jung Yoon, a highly literate, twenty-something woman, as she recounts her tragic personal history as well as those of her three intimate college friends. When Yoon receives a distressing phone call from her ex-boyfriend after eight years of ...
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I'll Be Right There

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How friendship, European literature, and a charismatic professor defy war, oppression, and the absurd
Set in 1980s South Korea amid the tremors of political revolution, I’ll Be Right There follows Jung Yoon, a highly literate, twenty-something woman, as she recounts her tragic personal history as well as those of her three intimate college friends. When Yoon receives a distressing phone call from her ex-boyfriend after eight years of separation, memories of a tumultuous youth begin to resurface, forcing her to re-live the most intense period of her life. With profound intellectual and emotional insight, she revisits the death of her beloved mother, the strong bond with her now-dying former college professor, the excitement of her first love, and the friendships forged out of a shared sense of isolation and grief.
Yoon’s formative experiences, which highlight both the fragility and force of personal connection in an era of absolute uncertainty, become immediately palpable. Shin makes the foreign and esoteric utterly familiar: her use of European literature as an interpreter of emotion and experience bridges any gaps between East and West. Love, friendship, and solitude are the same everywhere, as this book makes poignantly clear.
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  • Ill Be Right There
    Ill Be Right There  

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Tension and sadness are the prevailing emotions affecting the four major characters in this moving novel from Shin, author of the bestselling Please Look After Mom. Set in politically turbulent 1980s South Korea, the plot follows two young couples. They belong to a generation that is bitterly disillusioned and despairing of the future. The narrator, Jung Yoon, is mourning her mother’s death when she leaves her rural home to attend college. She is feeling alienated when she meets Myungsuh and Miru, a couple drawn into the student protests against South Korea’s military government. Mired in anomie, Jung is unable to return the love of her childhood friend, Dahn, an aspiring artist, who reaches out to her during his grueling experience as an army recruit. As a counterweight to this downbeat mood, Shin describes Jung’s beloved Professor Yoon, who inspires his students, urging them not to “write a single sentence that abets violence.” Shin can suggest profound implications in restrained detail, and though the story ends in tragedy, her frequent references to both Eastern and Western literature testify to the duty to hope and to survive. (June)
From the Publisher

"[I'll Be Right There is] a page-turner, such is Shin's gift for storytelling, as well as her careful cultivation of motifs." —New York Times Book Review

"Shin writes wonderfully about intimacy and the longing of lonely people. ...I'll Be Right There is a hopeful work about the power of art, friendship and empathy to provide meaning to people's lives." —LA Times

“Tender and mournful, the latest novel from best-selling South Korean novelist Shin (Please Look after Mom, 2011) considers young love and loss in an era of political ferment...Shin's uncomplicated yet allusive narrative voice delivers another calmly affecting story, simultaneously foreign and familiar." —Kirkus

"Shin can suggest profound implications in restrained detail, and though the story ends in tragedy, her frequent references to both Eastern and Western literature testify to the duty to hope and stay alive." —Publishers Weekly

I'll Be Right There is as much about tender friendships as it is about the tragedies of a political uprising.” —The Huffington Post

"Through one tender scene after another, Shin shows us the comfort human connection offers." —Bookslut

“In this inspiring novel, Kyung-sook Shin argues that, faced with treachery, the moral person can be carrier and Christ to others.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune

I’ll Be Right There is a haunting story of adolescent entanglements that will speak to readers everywhere.” —The Independent

“The shimmering, lucid tones and silver melancholy of I'll Be Right There give readers a South Korea peopled with citizens fighting for honor and intellectual freedom, and longing for love and solace. Kyung-Sook Shin’s characters have unforgettable voices—it’s no wonder she has so many fans.” —Susan Straight, author of Between Heaven and Here and National Book Award Finalist

"The novel brilliantly uses European literature to familiarize Western readers with Eastern turmoil. " —Flavorwire

"Shin's skill lies in her ability to transmute the specific into the universal." —Shelf Awareness

“A wonderful, heartbreaking story that lingered with me long after the last page was turned. As the powerful story unfolded, I enjoyed peeling away the complicated, dark layers of every character. Kyung-sook Shin’s beautiful depictions of love and sweet adolescent confessions will take you back in time to your first heartbreak.” —PP Wong, Editor-in-Chief, Banana Writers

“Known for her beautiful imagery and lyrical prose…in I’ll Be Right There, Shin utilizes vivid, searing imagery…balanc[ing] the gentle beauty of language with bold images throughout her writing…Shin’s passages are carefully crafted, as if they were from a book of poetry…Ultimately, I’ll Be Right There is a story of hope.” —Korean Quarterly

"An astounding meditation on living in time, both time lost and time gained, as well as...an expression of a philosophy of a way to live...I'll Be Right There immediately stands out as a book that supports, perhaps even needs, multiple readings." —Korean Literature in Translation

"Shin's perspective on relationships is nuanced; she doesn't shy away from what is complex, complicated or painful in everyday human connections...There is also vibrancy and richness in the lives of her characters, and an understanding of love and solitude that is universal." —Electric Literature

"Spectacular...Shin’s searing, immediate prose will remind readers of Nadeem Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden, Edwidge Danticat’s The Dew Breaker, and Aminatta Forna’s The Memory of Love, and their stories of ordinary lives trapped in extraordinary sociopolitical circumstances." —BookDragon 

“A searing, literate portrayal of the cost of survival in a time of chaos, Shin nevertheless evokes a surprising amount of hope.”  —Philadelphia Weekly

“Shin suggests that literature’s most valuable task may be to refresh principles so basic as to seem banal, to render them graspable even in the harshest rapids of modernization and development.” —Public Books

"Shin’s contemplative narrative...captures both the preciousness of life and a constant intermingling sorrow." —Bookreporter

"I’ll Be Right There is a gem of a novel, a quiet, masterful rendering of the emotional life of a young woman looking back on the formative years of her early twenties." —Rosemary & Reading Glasses

Kirkus Reviews
Tender and mournful, the latest novel from best-selling South Korean novelist Shin (Please Look after Mom, 2011) considers young love and loss in an era of political ferment. Eight years after a transformative if tragedy-clouded romance, two intimate friends reconnect by phone with news of the illness of a college professor whose classes helped unite them. Shin then quickly spools back to that earlier period, the university days of Jung Yoonwho has had a year's leave of absence, mourning her mother's death—and Yi Myungsuh, a politically active student taking part in the many demonstrations disrupting life in Seoul in the 1980s. The attraction between the two is influenced by Yi Myungsuh's friendship with Miru, a young woman whose scarred hands are terrible living reminders of a missing sister and her "disappeared" boyfriend. Narrated partly by Jung Yoon, partly in other characters' letters and diaries, the story combines philosophy and youthful idealism, innocence and brutal experience, all delivered in Shin's understated prose. Although a story of specific relationships, the novel reaches toward larger resonances, touching on shared impulses and universal injustices, underscoring them with references to world literature. Above all, the book celebrates human love and friendship, touchstones during dark, divided times. Shin's uncomplicated yet allusive narrative voice delivers another calmly affecting story, simultaneously foreign and familiar.
Library Journal
★ 03/01/2014
"I do not specifically reveal the era or elucidate Korea's political situation," writes Shin, recipient of the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize for Please Look After Mom, in the ending of her latest spectacular novel in English translation. Ironically, those missing details make this story urgently universal: in Israel/Palestine, Afghanistan, Egypt, Syria, and too many other countries in tumult, young people will continue to form life-changing bonds and fall hopelessly in love. While people vanish without a trace and others die senselessly, Jung Yoon matures into young adulthood as she loses her beloved mother, meets a once-in-a-lifetime mentor professor, forms and renews intimate friendships, and creates "forever" memories with her first love. Her self-preservation in the midst of brutal turmoil comes at an impossibly high price. Years later, in spite of what she survives (and others do not), the title becomes an anthem to hope: "'I hope you never hesitate to say, I'll be right there.' " Shin's searing, immediate prose will remind readers of Nadeem Aslam's The Blind Man's Garden, Edwidge Danticat's The Dew Breaker, and Aminatta Forna's The Memory of Love, and their stories of ordinary lives trapped in extraordinary sociopolitical circumstances. VERDICT The well-earned lauds for Shin's two titles should ensure that more of her thus far 17 novels will arrive Stateside. [See "Galley Guide Discoveries," Prepub Alert 1/19/14.]—Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon, Washington, DC
The Barnes & Noble Review

Korean writer Kyung-Sook Shin's second novel to be translated into English, I'll Be Right There, opens as forebodingly as Kazuo Ishiguro's terrifying 2006 novel, Never Let Me Go. There is something not quite right here — but whereas Never Let Me Go is a science fiction nightmare, the events in I'll Be Right There are based in reality.

Late one night, Jung Yoon receives a call from a friend she hasn't heard from in eight years, informing her that their beloved college professor is dying. The message takes her back to a memory of schooldays in 1980s South Korea when "I could look at a single book title and think of a dozen other books related to it." College, for most, is a carefree time — but for Yoon and her friends it's a time of turmoil, violence, and ominous disappearances — all related to the era's political upheaval and protests against an South Korea's military-backed regime.

A year after her mother's death from cancer, Jung Yoon has been passing her time aimlessly walking the streets to the point of exhaustion. Ready at last to return to university, Yoon meets Myungsuh and Miru, a mysterious pair who will become her close friends. She soon becomes desperate to know the story behind Miru, a young girl who always wears the same summery skirt despite the weather, keeps track of everything she eats in a journal, and whose hands are completely covered in burn scars.

Shin is the only woman to win the Man Asian Literary Prize, for her 2012 Please Look After Mom. I'll Be Right There unfolds through three different voices — Yoon's, Myungsuh's (through a journal), and letters home from Dahn, a childhood friend of Yoon's who joins the army. Yoon's adventures with Myungsuh and Miru are set against a backdrop of constant political protests. Out for a walk, Yoon is caught up in a rioting crowd and and knocked unconscious. She wakes up bloody and disoriented. Seeing she is injured, Myungsuh carries her home. Miru joins them for their first meal together, and their friendship is solidified.

Miru, as we and Yoon learn, is on a tireless quest to find a man who disappeared — taking up the reins from her sister, who loved him. It's insinuated that the man spoke out against the corrupt government. One night he was abducted, never to be seen again. Myungsuh begs Miru to give up her search. The mystery eventually winds through not one but two devastating plot twists, which I won't reveal here.

Yoon tells us her story as an adult, through a veil of nostalgia and regret. Though Shin's writing style is simple, even sparse, Yoon's revelations bear a beautiful sadness that hints at the connection between our emotional lives and the natural world. "When Myungsuh called me for the second time in eight years to tell me Professon Yoon would not last the night, when he said my name and then nothing more, the memory of those long forgotten words, Let's remember this day forever, came rushing back to me like a school of salmon swimming up a cataract." Translator Sora Kim-Russell does an excellent job of capturing Shin's matter-of-fact delivery, even in moments of intense emotion.

Yoon's journey to discover the truth about Miru is, in many ways, related to the loss she's already experienced. Her mother, upon discovering she was dying, sent Yoon away to live with her cousin. "Sending me away was my mother's way of loving me." In a sense, her mother had already disappeared. Even after her mother's death Yoon still returns to the pharmacy to wait to pick up her medication. "It was my Wednesday routine. I no longer had a number to wait for, but each time the pager dinged, I would look up and watch the display change."

In her author's note Shin writes, "I'll Be Right There is the story of young people living in tragic times… Their story takes place in the 1980s and early 1990s in South Korea… However, in this novel, I do not specifically reveal the era or elucidate Korea's political situation at the time. This was a deliberate decision on my part as a writer, because I believe what happens to the characters in I'll Be Right There is in no way limited to South Korea. Everything that happens in this novel could happen in any country and in any generation." But although we all may be looking for someone in the abstract, the people in Yoon's world are irretrievably missing. A phone rings every night in an office where Myungsuh is staying. He finally picks it up to hear a desperate voice." I guess Miru was not the only one," he writes in his journal. "A lot of people were searching for someone. In other places as well, places I'd never heard of, there were probably other phones ringing off the hook in search of someone."

Jessica Ferri is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared at The New Yorker's Book Bench, NPR,The Economist, The Daily Beast, Time Out New York, Bookforum, and more. Find her at www.jessicaferri.com.

Reviewer: Jessica Ferri

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781590516737
  • Publisher: Other Press, LLC
  • Publication date: 6/3/2014
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 174,448
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Kyung-sook Shin, the author of seventeen works of is one of South Korea’s most widely read and acclaimed novelists. Her best seller Please Look After Mom has been translated into more than thirty languages. She has been honored with the Man Asian Literary Prize, the Manhae Prize, the Dong-in Literary Award, the Yi Sang Literary Prize, and France’s Prix de l’Inaperçu, as well as the Ho-Am Prize in the Arts, awarded for her body of work for general achievement in Korean culture and the arts.
Sora kim-Russell is a poet and translator originally from California and now living in Seoul, South Korea. Her work has appeared in Words Without Borders, Azalea: A Journal of Korean Literature and Culture, Drunken Boat, Pebble Lake Review, The Diagram, and other publications. She teaches at Ewha Womans University.
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Read an Excerpt

It was my first phone call from him in eight years.
I recognized his voice right away. As soon as he said, “Hello?” I asked, “Where are you?” He didn’t say anything. Eight years—it was not a short length of time. Broken down into hours, the number would be unimaginable. I say it had been eight years, but we had stopped talking even before then. Once, at some get-together with friends, we had avoided each other’s eyes the whole time, and only when everyone was parting ways did we each other’s hand without the others seeing. That was it.

I don’t remember where we were. Only that it was after midnight, summer, and we were standing in front of some steep staircase in a hidden corner of the city. There must have been a fruit stand nearby. The scent floating in the humid air reminded me of biting into a plum. Taking his hand and letting it go was my way of saying good-bye. I did not know what he was thinking, but for me, all of the words I wanted to say to him had collected inside of me like pearls. I could not bring myself to say goodbye or see you later. If I had opened my mouth to say a single word, all of the other expired words would have followed and spilled to the ground, as if the string that held them together had snapped. Since I still clung to the memory of how we had grown and matured together, I was vexed by the thought that there would be no controlling my feelings once they came undone. But outwardly I feigned a look of composure. I did not want to spoil my memories of how we used to rely on each other.
Time is never fair or easy for anyone—not now and not eight years ago. When I calmly asked him where he was, despite not having heard from him in all of that time, I realized that the words I had not been able to say to him then were no longer pent up inside me.

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Reading Group Guide

1. Which two characters do you feel share the strongest bond with one another? Are there any two that have an especially powerful connection, and if so, what makes their connection more compelling?  

2. Do you think that this book has an optimistic or a pessimistic view of friendship and first loves?

3. What role does memory play in I’ll Be Right There? What might Shin be looking to say about our relationship to it?

4. What role does Professor Yoon play in everyone’s lives, and why is his death so significant?  What does he “teach” Jung, Myungush, and Miru? Have you experienced a similar connection to a professor?

5. The characters in I’ll Be Right There are continually confronted by the impermanence of life and the pain of losing what is closest to them. What effect might this have on them both personally and politically? 

6. What are Shin’s strengths and weaknesses as a writer? Do you prefer her narrative construction, her characters, her prose style, or some other aspect of her writing? Is she comparable to any other writers stylistically?

7. When Yoon observes Dahn’s equal fascination and fear of spiders, she wonders if love and fear share the same root.  Are there other instances in the book when someone both loves and fears something?

8. The book contains many allusions to other writers, including Emily Dickinson.  What do you think this book is trying to say about the use of art and literature in the face of politics and violence, and the power of literature as a link between people?

9. At one point, Myungush wonders “What would have happened to us if it weren’t for Yoon?” Why does Yoon becomes so integral to the relationship between Miru and Myungush?  

10. Why doesn’t Yoon speak to Myungsuh about Dahn’s death?  What are other instances in this book when someone keeps a secret, and why do you think they do so?

11. What does this novel teach us about the ways in which we can better cope with loss and grief in our own lives?

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