I haven’t cried over a book in quite some time. It’s easy to cry during a movie, to channel the emotion from the screen through your own body. To cry over written words, however, is far more difficult. You can’t see the emotion in a face or a gesture; the author must bring you to feel the pain as your own.
“My Brilliant Life,” the debut novel by Ae-ran Kim, brought me to tears with these words: “As Mom wheeled me across the skybridge, I felt something cold settle on my cheek and melt away instantly. ‘It’s snowing, isn’t it Mom?’”
Areum is a sixteen-year-old boy with progeria, a congenital condition that causes him to age rapidly. Halfway through the novel, we learn that he is losing sight in one eye. The moment is devastating in its simplicity and nonchalance. Kim does not tell the reader that Areum has lost his sight completely; she simply places a snowflake on his cheek and asks us to connect the dots.
The reader knows from the first page how this story will end. Areum narrates in verse, “Is sixteen the right age to become a parent? / Is thirty-two the right age to lose a child?” But the gravity of these lines is soon exchanged for a light curiosity as Areum is introduced. He begins by telling us how his mom, Mira, and his dad, Daesu, met. We learn of their first encounter at sixteen years old, their infatuation and their unexpected pregnancy.
Daesu finds work for a construction company expanding the nearby river to promote tourism. He and Mira are thrust into parenthood and, as the water rises, their childhood is left drowning in the now-flooded village. Areum tells stories of his parents’ old friends coming to visit, seeing the newfound age in Daesu and Mira’s faces.
Struggling to pay for Areum’s medical bills, the family goes on a TV show which documents people with rare medical conditions, raising money through donations. In an interview, Areum says that while he may be the youngest person in the room, he has “probably lived the longest … When I’m really sick, the days feel so long. One minute feels like one hour … So when you think about subjective time, I’ve certainly lived longer than you.” He laughs at the thought, but the interviewers do not see the humor. Indeed, Areum lives his life faster than others, devouring books and stories of his parents’ lives to fill in the blanks he’s missed.
Even though the reader knows of the degenerative nature of Areum’s condition — the specter which lurks in every scene — Kim paints a distinctly upbeat portrait of his daily life. Every few chapters the family receives bad news from their doctors, but these moments never linger. Instead, the reader’s impression of their life is formed in sweet pondering of Areum’s narration.
We listen as Areum recites a line of poetry to his parents, see him bouncing on a trampoline and hear him muse on the changing of the seasons. Areum smiles far more often than he cries.
Eventually, Areum’s condition forces him to be hospitalized permanently. The shift in setting is sudden, yet intentionally softened by Areum’s consistent tone. He sees a young doctor flirting with the nurses, and recalls a Korean word. “‘Chupa’ — to make a pass. Chupa. ‘Chu,’ meaning autumn. ‘Pa,’ meaning wave. Autumn wave.”
His analysis then gets deeper and grimmer. “Because it’s winter right after fall. Because the season of sterility and death is looming, autumn is when things become desperate. I thought of the long-dead people who decided to call that chupa and smiled.”
Autumn turns to winter, Mira wheels Areum out into the snow. I knew that Areum’s condition would get worse, that this moment would come. Why then was I so devastated when it finally did? Kim masterfully turns the snowflake on Areum’s cheek into a tear on mine, as I come to understand that his end is near. Age has caught up with him, as it does with everyone. To steal a line or two from Richard Siken, “Someone has to leave first. This is a very old story. There is no other version of this story.”
The reader can no longer revel in Areum’s observations, his jokes, his quiet optimism. Kim brings us to realize that, like Areum, we find respite from the inevitable in the beauty of the mundane, the daily, the conversations overheard and the stories of others.
Death is rarely written as a curious affair. It is unwanted, raged against. But “My Brilliant Life” follows a different track — it explores life after the acceptance of death. I cried when I realized that Areum was blind because I knew what came next, because, in the silent brutality of the moment, his only question was, “What kind of snow is it?”
Daily Arts Contributor Julian Wray can be reached at email@example.com.