4 out of 4 stars
Share This Review
The Korean Word For Butterfly by Jamie Zerndt is a thoughtful and emotional novel about fabricated opportunities and the desire for redemption, about making choices and dealing with their consequences. It is set in South Korea during the 2002 World Cup and under the shadow of escalating anti-American sentiments cast by the deaths of two Korean girls hit by a U.S. tank, a tragic accident that really happened.
The story unfolds through the alternating perspectives of the three protagonists, as their lives cross and weave together in the aisles of an English school at the gates of Seoul.
First, we meet Billie and her boyfriend Joe as they set foot on Korean soil. They are two high school graduates who filed bogus paperwork (literally) to embark on a year long challenge as teachers in Korea, driven by a need for adventure and by the wish of a life-changing experience. They land, full of dreams and hopes, and with a vision of the country that might or might not be idealized. Upon their arrival, they are welcomed by Moon.
Moon is a former music producer, currently working at the English school, and ex alcoholic who is trying to piece his life back together. His wife Min Jee left him, taking their three-year-old son Hyo from him, after he hurt the child’s arm in a moment of drunken numbness. Shaken by the accident, Moon has since then stopped drinking, while trying to rebuild the relationship with both his son and his wife. He is the one in charge of vetting new teachers for the school and the one to discover that Billie and Joe are frauds.
And then there is Yun-ji. She works as a secretary at the English school while taking business classes in the morning. She’s destined to take over her father’s management of the restaurant they own, but her dream is to one day open an Internet cafe for women only. Her days are marked by the unstable relationship of her parents. Her father neglects his family in favor of alcohol, while her mother passively accepts the situation. One day Yun-ji meets Shaun, a US soldier who will change her life forever.
What’s peculiar about the storytelling is that, while Moon and Yun-ji are written in third person, Billie is written in first person, making her a sort of main protagonist. It’s an interesting and keen choice from the author, as it gives us the point of view of an American civil who sees what her country's military is doing in foreign land through the eyes of the hosting country. At the same time it shows how the Americans’ vivaciousness is felt by Koreans. An idea of the feeling is given by this quote, which I found to be truly representative: “Both of the girls probably knew the English word for nabi. But did American children need to learn the Korean word for butterfly? No. There was no need for their children to learn Yun-ji’s language.”
Mind you, I’m neither American nor Korean, so I devoured the pages of this book with the neutral eye of someone who enjoyed reading about two diametrically opposite societies struggling with the ups and downs of a forced cohabitation.
I picked this book for review because I was drawn by the Asian settings and by the multiple viewpoints. I have to say it did not disappoint. Zerndt’s writing style is fluid and lively, he managed to bring life to both the landscape and the characters, which I could easily picture. If I have to quibble over something, I would have wished for more background into Billie and Joe’s pre-Korean life, as I didn’t find clear what led them to such an extreme choice. The only real complaint I can make is that I wish this book were much longer!
As for the editing, there are a couple of things that mildly unsettled me. For a start, the name of the school was written in different ways, such as Kid’s Inc., Kids Inc! or Kids, Inc! Same goes for megook and meegook. The punctuation needs some polishing, the poor commas were at times misused. But aside from that, the few mistakes I spotted weren’t significant enough to ruin my enjoyment. I didn’t consider as errors the dialogues of Koreans (for instance, a few block instead of a few blocks) as they came with the little knowledge of the English language and gave more credibility to the exchanges.
The book was studded with Korean terms whose meaning was clear most of the times. I personally had to look up for words like megook and learned quite a few new things, something to be always grateful for!
Given all the above considerations, I’d rate this book 3.5 stars if I could. I’m still bouncing back and forth between 3 and 4 stars, but in consideration of the modesty of the editing issues, I decided to give it a full 4 out of 4 stars.
I would recommend it to anyone who wants to read an original and well-written novel. I have just one warning: at some point the story deals with a sensitive topic like abortion.
The Korean Word For Butterfly
View: on Bookshelves | on Amazon
Like strawberrysab's review? Post a comment saying so!