This time we’ll finish Kyung-sook Shin’s historical novel, Jin Lee (신경숙의《리진》). Part 4 has seven chapters, and like part 1, it has no opening letter for each chapter. The book then closes with an epilogue.
Chapter 1 is titled “Reunion,” and it parallels part 1 with Jin and Collin’s return on a ship to Jemulpo Harbor in Joseon, traveling from Marseille through the Suez. The voyage takes 50 days, and they are returning after a 3 year absence to the French Legation in Seoul. Jin has been sleepwalking, and a worried Collin is looking for a cure. Coming home to Joseon seems to really help her. They meet Peter Choi, the interpreter, at the harbor and get the latest news on the latest political developments, including problems between the Queen and Daewongun, the Japanese, and the peasant uprisings.
Afterward, Jin walks to the orphanage to see Mrs. Seo, and a group of children comes by with Yeon Kang. When Yeon Kang sees Jin, he calls her by her nickname “Lily” and runs to her, which oddly reminds her of Maupassant and the Morgue of Paris. The three share a meal together and enjoy the spring weather before Jin and Yeon Kang find a place to sit in Banchon to visit together.
Chapter 2 is “A Changed Face,” and it’s mostly about Jin and Collin’s visit with the Queen, who now has a Japanese attendant known only as Sojonshil’s daughter. This Japanese woman, who is never called by her actual name, always wears a kimono in the Joseon court, and that’s also referenced pretty often. It turns out that Collin and Jin never did have their wedding ceremony as planned in Paris. This is a problem for the Queen since she was once a court lady. Apparently Collin’s mother opposed the marriage, and that was the reason it didn’t take place. We see the Queen’s entourage playing a game of Tuho in the palace garden, which is described here:
If I understand the second half of this chapter correctly, Jongu Hong has been petitioning the King over various things, including getting Collin out of Joseon, and Collin leaves the country without Jin.
Jongu Hong has been connected a few times in the novel to a historical figure named Okgyun Kim, who was assassinated around the time Jongu Hong returned from Paris. Details about this man are here:
Chapter 3 is a letter from Collin to Jin titled “Letter 1 – Here in Tangiers, Morocco .“ It’s only a few pages long and is dated May of 1895. He makes comparisons between Joseon and Morocco and even their life in Paris. He signs off talking about making plans to be together again.
Chapter 4 is a letter from Jin to Collin titled “Letter 2 – Forget Me.“ This chapter is also a few pages long, and the letter is dated June of 1895. She talks awhile about other things, but ultimately she ends the letter with a statement that she doesn’t want to meet again and that she doesn’t love him, which she repeats a few times. She thinks that’s all that needs to be said.
Chapter 5, “By Love’s Name,“ has a few letters Yeon Kang wrote to Jin, and he mentions wanting to go to China to study their musical instruments. Missionary Blanc comes around later, and there is a discussion of Yeon Kang having his fingers chopped off as punishment. Again, Jongu Hong has something to do with this through a petition to the King and an inquiry now that he’s a minister of the court. He is an ambitious reformer who has had his eye on Jin, so she thinks this is revenge for her refusing Jongu Hong’s affections. Yeon Kang has no way of opposing his wrath.
Chapter 6, “Time on a Cliff,“ begins with them looking for Yeon Kang and meeting him after he had his fingers cut off. Jin wonders what anyone can do without their fingers, and Missionary Blanc comes to talk with him. This punishment was also related to the new Japanese minister and the Qing, but I was unclear on how that worked out. There is more about the royal court leading up to the assassination of the Queen by the Japanese, but since this is a well-known historical event, for the sake of time, I’m going to skip the details here.
Chapter 7 is titled “The Martlet ,” and it starts out with Mrs. Seo back in Banchon. Mrs. Seo shares some gruel with Jin, but Jin can’t eat and asks to go back to the palace. She tells Mrs. Seo that Collin won’t be coming back to Joseon. They go to the palace but don’t find the King there, so they wander about the palace. Jin is with the Queen when she dies in a lingering death scene, or maybe it’s a flashback. This part is fairly confusing, talking alot about the Queen and her court ladies being stabbed, but Jin ultimately commits suicide by eating the pages out of her French dictionary, her last thoughts full of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and of Yeon Kang. Mrs. Seo finds her body and the dictionary.
Finally, the story ends with an epilogue showing Collin twenty years later in Paris, 1914. Collin lives in an apartment with his wife and is reading the paper before the fireplace. The archduke and his wife were just assassinated in Sarajevo, leaving Europe on the verge of war, which the text gets into in some detail. Collin looks at a book translated by Jongu Hong which is lying on his desk. His wife comes in the room and asks him who the Asian woman in a photo is. It is a photo of Jin. Collin doesn’t answer his wife right away. The photo brings back memories of Jin, and he thinks of her death. He finally tells his wife it is a woman he used to love.
A section at the back of the book has the author’s explanation of certain points, but I don’t have time to read that.
My overall impression of the book is that it was mostly slice of life with an emphasis on the historical context, and major plot points are glossed over and downplayed in favor of more prosaic detail. This is not terribly unusual for high literary works because the genre doesn’t value plot too much. Certainly, this novel features one of the most unusual and extreme forms of suicide I’ve ever heard of. I also hadn’t expected it to spend so much time on the King and Queen. But overall, it was an interesting look at a time I didn’t know much about.
Next time: We return to Hong Kong with an installment from Min Li’s detective novel series, Dark Witch.
Part six of a six part series.