Lemon by Kwon Yeo-Sun is one of those books you just can’t put down. It’s three in the morning, you have to work tomorrow, but it doesn’t matter – you need to know.
Like all murder mystery diehards (pun intended), I take to heart what Hercule Poirot said: a murder is not about the murderer, but about the victim. “One must always return to the victim. For their personality, their nature, it, it is the key.”
When the curtain goes up in the first chapter of Lemon, and a hapless suspect is being interrogated for the murder of a young girl, you see from the start that the detective has forgotten Poirot’s rule – and it’s up to you, the reader, to piece the crime together. To do so, you must learn about the dead girl Hae-On’s secrets, starting with something obliquely hinted – that Hae-On was a little more different than everyone (except one character) realised.
The plot seems simple on the face of it: a teen girl, described as possessing astonishing beauty, has been found (allegedly) murdered, her skull caved in. The suspects, at first, seem run-of-the-mill: the rich boy, the poor boy, the rival class beauty, the secret admirer, the plain little sister whose life seems devoted to caring for her eunni.
But there’s more to Lemon than a murder mystery. There are elements of the ‘school life drama’ here; and just like in most Korean and Japanese school-life stories, from comedic anime to dark horror, the extreme youth of the cast of characters is completely unsupported by the adults in their life. Parents are either missing or ineffective, and each teenage child is left to grapple with their individual trauma in chilling isolation. This means that a couple of them, at least, come up with some truly horrific coping mechanisms, from extreme plastic surgery to sheer unhinged, hysterical denial.
Kwon’s story, told with the burning earnestness and raw emotion of angry and desperate teenagers scribbling frantically in a secret diary, gives the story a potent immediacy. Despite - or perhaps because of - its compactness, Kwon manages to convey with great impact the emotional, mental and physical fallout that the characters suffer even a decade after the unresolved death.
If you like your books like lemons – sharp, tart, and often used to reveal layers of complexity – this one’s for you.
by Meihan Boey