Cover Image: My Brilliant Life

My Brilliant Life

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This Korean novel in translation is about Areum, who is sixteen-years-old, the same age his parents were when they had him. He wants to hear their stories of what life was life before he was born. And Areum wants to write his own story before time runs out. He has a disease that is killing him, making him age quicker than he is supposed to.  This is a book about writing one’s story, it’s about memory and about listening to others’ stories. This book is beautiful and sad and poignant and unlike any book I’ve ever read. It is a quiet book that sneaks up on you and lingers long after the last page is read. Thank you to Forge Books and NetGalley for the advanced review copy.
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I received a copy of My Brilliant Life in exchange for an honest opinion. 

Wow.  This book give me joy and tore me apart all at once.  The main character, Areum, a young teen boy, narrates his life as he is plagued with an illness that neither him nor his doctors can identify. Plagued by his disease Areum reflects on his life, and the reality of being the child of teen parents.  Areum finds himself raising his parents, and coaching them through their journey as their son’s health deteriorates. 

I honestly didn’t think that I was going to enjoy this book at much as I did.
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I received an Uncorrected Digital Galley review copy of this from the publisher Macmillan-Tor/Forge through NetGalley. This caught my attention because I lived in South Korea for seven years from 2000-2007, which means that I have a familiarity with but only an outsider’s limited understanding of Korean culture. Michael Breen, an English author of the 2004 book The Koreans: Who They Are, What They Want, Where Their Future Lies, said that even after living in Seoul for 15 years “Koreans are not easy to understand.” And yet... perhaps through fiction understanding is made easier.

Or, perhaps not. The thing about culture is we can only try to understand what we can see and we can only see what we’re allowed to see. Reading literature can surely help, though I am reliant on someone’s translation. And some concepts do not translate well. But... the translator is Korean and that is a huge plus. So, we are allowed inside the mind of Ms. Kim through her creation. And we learn we’re not that different. To anyone reading who has never experienced the culture in person, this will only give you a few fragments of what it is to be Korean (which I have already admitted I know only a little.)

Ms. Kim wrote a familiar story, made compelling with the casting of an extremely rare disease and a role reversal of the child aging before the parents. Too young when they had Areum, we learn of them through the story Areum is writing about them. His maternal grandfather naturally was not happy with the news, referring to Areum's father as an idiot, to which Areum thinks "But my grandfather had failed to recognize who my dad really was. Sure, he was an idiot, but he was brash and adventurous, the most dangerous kind of idiot."

I don't normally highlight fiction, but this work had a few phrases that prodded me in the right way. Like "I didn't read for the love of knowledge but rather with the anxiety of someone who would be the sole survivor when the world ended." And, "I was sixteen, but if I learned anything in my short life, it was that experiencing pain was a solitary endeavor."

Areum gave himself homework, "and since my homework was self-imposed, I was both teacher and student." He wrote down things he was curious about:

    Why does a child always look like a child, no matter how old he is?
    A sudden thought flashed through my head. Maybe that was why people had children.
    To relive the life they don't remember.
    That made sense. Nobody remembered their early years. You couldn't remember anything that happened to you from before you were three or four, so you wanted to experience it through your child.

Well...not quite, at least in my case. What I don’t remember well is when my children were children. Memories or not of when I was a child is not why I had children.

Following a news story on his condition on a show that helped raise money for hard cases (Areum was at the point that he would soon be hospitalized), Areum read comments on the web page and as expected not all were encouraging, but one said

    As Areum said, parents are happy when their child is good at school or athletic, but from a parent's perspective there's nothing more difficult than raising a child to be a good person.

Truth from a fictitious third party in the middle of a third party (Ms. Kim) telling a truth.

I wondered at the poetry of this prose in its original language "I heard the wind wherever I went, because the wind was everywhere. It gradually stripped the color off summer and stole the vibrancy of the earth, The color orange trumped green, and red overtook orange."

I was curious about the narrator’s name, 아름, or Areum as transliterated. It is not common and I don’t recall ever hearing it; even less common is that it is a two syllable name and not a combination of two morphemes. And, oddly, is it described as a feminine name. It is said to mean “beauty”. In the Author's Note, a short poem, Ms. Kim says "I dedicate this book to Jaekwi.
Who taught me how to breathe warmth into discarded names."

Touching. As was the entire book.

This novel was first published in 2011 by Hanbooks with the title 두근두근 내 인생 (Dugun Dugun Nae Insaeng), “My Palpating Life”. This is the first English translation.
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Didn't realize this was a YA book, or I am assuming that teens are the intended audience, until I read a few chapters.  Adults will enjoy the novel as well as teens, unless you are fatigued with teens dying of a disease in novels.  That does seem to be a theme lately.  This reminded me of a picture book where a young boy becomes an old man, which is what happens in this novel, when our sixteen-year-old main character has the body of an 80 year old.  What I found most interesting was the 60 year old neighbor who lived with his father and their relationship and the person who pretended to be a dying teen writing emails to him, and then we discover the writer is a male in his thirties, a male who may have been stalking him at the hospital at one point.  I rather wish, if that is what was happening, that the two would have met.  There's some beautiful prose in this interesting novel, and some mysteries left unanswered.  At one point, I wondered if the teen mother actually became pregnant by her teen boyfriend and not by the doctor. We will never know, which is fine also.
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A perfect young adult novel for fans of John Green, David Levithan, and Nicola Yoon. It's heartwrenching and funny at the same time. You will not want to stop reading it.
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"Mom, according to this writer, the world's most terrifying person is someone who might vanish forever." This quote somehow summarizes my feelings while reading this book.

The main character, Areum, likes to read. At sixteen he looks like an 80-year-old. Even though this is a cause for sadness, he and his parents make funny jokes about it. At the start of the book, you can see the strength and determination that his parents showed when they got him at the young age of sixteen. Even though their situation was not ideal, they persisted.

If only reality and daydreams could merge as one for Areum. He's a wonderful and bright young boy with loving parents. He keeps trying to cheer them up but how do you cheer someone up that is about to mourn a child? Still, we can all learn from him how to live in the present. But even this boy sometimes needs a gentle reminder from his mom that he can take his sweet time to do something.

The first part of My Brilliant Life is the most intriguing. I like Ae-ran Kim's use of perspective: the storyteller Areum uses 'I' to add the baby's perspective - his perspective - to his parents' story. This is nice and refreshing to read and places the story both in the past and the present at the same time.

The later parts are less special and make me feel like the author was trying too hard to make the conversations deep and meaningful. Musings about life are always interesting, but make more impact when included naturally and space is left "to create a hidden something to be found". What I miss in the latter part is the inclusivity of the other family members, even though this is a logical consequence of Areum's illness progressing as he can't narrate what he can’t perceive. 

I didn't enjoy reading the email conversations. They went on for too long and felt like a let-down after reading the very good narrative before (and, looking back, the part after). Kim Ae-ran is a good writer and I hope that more of her works will be translated in the future. While the topic of this book is in no way new or innovative, the author is a skilled writer who can tell a story.
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Well-written, bittersweet and full of insight.  Areum, who suffers from a disease that makes him age incredibly quickly, builds a tapestry of family memories and stories.
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