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Review: b, Book, and Me by Kim Sagwa

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Coming-of-age novels, and stories of self-discovery, can take a variety of forms across myriad genres of fiction, but most are typically grounded in realism, following the rules of their world. b, Book, and Me is a story of a different sort, leaning on a fever dream surrealism that grows in intensity over time, and using ambiguity and a narrative fog to reinforce the strangeness and frustration felt and experienced by young people year after year. It’s a layered and anxious tale that captures the dangers and mysteries of youth better than most.

b, Book, and Me

b book and me cover

The titular b, Book, and Me are our three protagonists: b is a teenage girl from a poor family living in a nameless coastal town in Korea; Book is a friend met along the way who has an obsession with reading and collecting books; and the ‘me’ refers to Rang, our initial narrator and best friend of b. The novel is split into three parts, with the first following a few clear and beautifully depicted days and memories in the life of Rang. The second follows b and begins to stretch itself into a feverish surrealism that mirrors her own unique fears, struggles, and stresses. The third teams the two up with Book as the walls of reality almost fall away entirely.

There is certainly a subversion of expectations at play in b, Book, and Me but it is so subtly and gradually woven into the narrative that it doesn’t feel intentional, but is rather a natural direction for the plot to move in. What begins as a seemingly predictable narrative about growing up in a small town with little to do, being bullied and ignored, and dreaming of fantastical things quickly falls into a dreamlike series of events which traumatically bring to life the fears and insecurities of our protagonists.

Rang is a girl ignored by her parents. She remarks early on that, whether she completes her homework a hundred times in a row or ignores it completely, her mother fails to notice. Pair this with daily beatings at the hands of a gang of baseball players at school, and you have a clearly established downtrodden protagonist to root for. Her best friend b is in further dire straits; having a sister who is terminally ill and being from a destitute family, she is far more troubled than Rang and yet goes to great lengths to support, defend, and pay attention to her. However, when Rang writes about b for a school project and reads aloud to the class all of b’s personal secrets without considering what she’s doing, their relationship immediately falls apart.

It’s at this falling apart that b, Book, and Me takes a dramatic turn, with Rang heading off along into the parts of town she’s never visited: a strange factory that smells of soy sauce and a neighbourhood where the forgotten dregs of society live, known as the End. Meanwhile, b spends time with one of the baseball boys, each of whom is defined by the name of a city stitched into his hat. Her new boyfriend, Washington Hat, abuses her sexually and yet, for a time, she lets him, so desperate is she for company and a distraction from her own issues.


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b, Book, and Me’s narrative is reminiscent of the M.C. Escher paintings “Cycle” and “Metamorphosis II”, both of which depict clearly defined shapes of black and white morphing into complex images of buildings, fish, and birds. This novel begins with a clearly defined world, with the subtleties of surrealism existing as obtuse names and nicknames for characters and neighbourhoods, and in Rang’s initial obsession with the sea as a metaphor for, well, whatever she desires. This obsession is written and translated with an incredibly poetic gravity, the intense flavour of which turns this book into something immediately addictive.

Once the world of the novel has been established, can be clearly defined and yet is also given a floating, gelatinous quality, it begins to crawl and then run into the realm of dreams. The seaside town, with its restaurants and hotels named after Seoul – a place seen by locals, including Rang, as a promised land of money, entertainment, comfort, and excitement – is an amorphous place, the borders of which are hard to pinpoint. It exists in a shifting bubble that its residents are caught up in, and there is an endless cycle of abuse and struggle that continues on mercilessly within this bubble, day after day.

Supporting characters, one of which Book begins as before rising to the protagonist rank, are also given nicknames and speculated about by Rang and b. They’re given unclear backstories and rumours pervade. This is one of the more clear and relatable moments of the early book. Something that kids always do to people they often see, speak to, but never really know: they invent stories about them for fun. The woman in the sweet shop, the bus driver, and the janitor all become fleshed-out but abstract stories. And that happens here, with that abstract narrative bleeding into the real lives of these people.

While it’s the construction and gentle deconstruction of b, Book, and Me’s world and story that are the novel’s most impressive features, it’s the titular protagonists’ stories and relationships that carry us through, as well as the themes they each represent, with b being the most compelling and tragic character.

b is a girl with a lot on her shoulders. Her sister is sick; later in the story this sickness permeates b’s dreams as she imagines her sister’s sickly green colour bleeding out of her. She is also a poor girl in an already poor and unremarkable town filled with nameless people. The abuse she suffers from people indistinct from one another is made all the more torturous by the fact that she begins the novel with so much thrilling angst and courage. She is corrupted by the abuse and its effect on her psyche in a very sudden way, mimicking the disorienting experience of time that we all live through as teenagers.

Beginning the story with Rang, however, has the same grounding effect as putting the initial emphasis on painting a vivid town before gradually distorting it. Rang is our anchor to the world, and her narrative – one that is more typical of a hero’s journey – reflects this. Her character, story, attitude, and place in the world is the most clear and focussed, but that doesn’t mean that b’s isn’t relatable. The surrealism that drains the world of its rigidity never detracts from the novel’s message or its delivery, so finely tuned and well-crafted are the narrative and characters.

Conclusion

b, Book, and Me does an uncanny job of illustrating the often surreal and frightening life of a teenager growing up somewhere unknown, with vague ideas that there is more beyond their world. The novel’s dreamlike nature is gently poured into the narrative as it moves forward and serves to reinforce the themes of the plot and the nature of its characters. Our protagonists are likeable, their motivations clear, and their world eerily understandable in spite of its impossible qualities.

Rarely does a novel manage to be so abstract and fluid and yet so clearly relatable. b, Book, and Me is a smart, beautifully written, masterfully translated work of Korean fiction that makes for a frightening yet true-to-life story of self-discovery and friendship.

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