Departures and abandonment, deaths and divorces: leavings of one kind or another sprinkle the pages of Crystal Hana Kim's If You Leave Me, a novel set in the later years and aftermath of the Korean War. Young Haemi Lee lives with her widowed mother and sickly brother, refugees of the war in a rundown camp miles from their hometown. Haemi spends her free time with her childhood friend, Kyunghwan, but she is promised to his cousin Jisoo in marriage, giving her an impossible choice: the boy she's loved since childhood, or the boy whose status and wealth can provide for her family.
"If you leave me, I won't forgive you," Haemi tells Kyunghwan. "If you leave me, I'll be alone," Kyunghwan tells Haemi. But they do leave each other, again and again--Haemi for Jisoo, for security, for the life she's told to want; Kyunghwan for honor, for revenge, for a life that could tempt Haemi.
If You Leave Me is as much about staying as leaving, though, as Haemi in particular finds reasons to stay in the life she has chosen: the honor of her family, her love for her daughters, her desire for autonomy in a world designed to keep it from her. Complex and fully realized, Kim's characters are caught in circumstances both exceptional and ordinary. Amidst romance, war and a country not merely "rebuilding... [but] shaping ourselves into a different form," If You Leave Me is ultimately a story about finding--and making--a life worth living. --Kerry McHugh, blogger at Entomology of a Bookworm