My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Han Yu-Jin awakens to the smell of blood and images of a crimson umbrella, yellow streetlights, a drunk man singing, and a tarpaulin waving in the wind. He finds himself covered in blood, with bloody footprints between his bed and bedroom door. As he descends the stairs, he sees more blood, and then the petite feet of a woman who was murdered by a slash to her throat. An epileptic, Yu-jin suffers side effects from his medication and often stops taking them. He had been off his pills and the previous night had a seizure. He couldn’t remember what happened or why a woman’s body was in the apartment he shared with his mother and adopted brother, Kim Hae-jin. He reviews possible suspects: an intruder, his mother, his brother, or even himself. Desperate for answers, Yu-jin begins a search for the truth that takes him deep into his childhood and his relationship with his family.
The Good Son is a fascinating psychological thriller told by an unreliable narrator who gradually and unexpectedly uncovers the events leading up to the woman’s murder. It includes frequent flashbacks, but the present day timeline unfolds in a relatively small geographical area (mostly in the apartment with some forays into the neighborhood) and a limited cast of characters. I thought this was an interesting choice and it contributed to a sense of isolation, claustrophobia, and dread. I haven’t read many books out of South Korea, and I found the setting intriguing, particularly the cultural norms around family and obedience. Comparing a psychological thriller by a South Korean author versus one from the United States or Europe was thought-provoking.
For the most part, the writing was engaging, but I did think the author relied too much on lists of questions. A litany of questions is one of my pet peeves in novels. Personally, I find it lazy and would rather the author find a way to describe the conundrum rather than simply capture it in the form of a question.
The most compelling aspect of The Good Son is the revelation of Yu-jin’s troubled past and his diagnosis as a psychopath. As a result, his Auntie, a well-regarded psychiatrist, and his mother, deceive him into believing he has epilepsy while treating him with medication for his personality disorder. Early in the novel, You-Jeong Jeong foreshadows this by describing his lack of nerve at swimming meets, his inappropriate emotional reactions, and his isolation. Once Yu-jin learns the truth about his diagnosis and treatment regimen, he spirals through denial, rage, and justification.
The book made me wonder what happens in reality if/when a psychopath learns his or her diagnosis and what a parent might do upon receiving such a diagnosis for their child. I turned to the Interweb and read some articles on the subject. As a result, I wondered how accurate You-Jeong Jeong portrayed psychopathy. Many of Yu-jin’s traits conformed to the common characteristics, but some did not, such as his lapse into “oblivion,” his seemingly strong emotions toward Hae-jin, his fear of his aunt and mother, and his hallucinations. Of course, I’m sure there is variation among individuals with such personality disorders, and to commit murder, Yu-jin would be an extreme case.
When a book makes me think beyond the covers, I automatically appreciate it more, so The Good Son, despite my concerns about the representation of psychopathy, was elevated beyond a straightforward psychological thriller to a meditation on mental health issues and the responsibly of parents for their troubled children, as well as the ethics of treatment (especially with a lack of consent, as in this novel). By posing these issues in the South Korean context, The Good Son is a worthy addition that contributes to the genre.