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from the March 2021 issue

A Precocious Teenager Faces a Rare Disease in Ae-ran Kim’s Touching Debut Novel, “My Brilliant Life”

Reviewed by Martha Anne Toll

A best seller in South Korea, where it was made into a movie, this fable-like book in the vein of Fitzgerald's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" features a sixteen-year-old trying to figure out his unlikely fate.

Ae-ran Kim’s debut novel, My Brilliant Life, elegantly translated by Chi-Young Kim, is narrated by a witty teenager with a rare disorder. Areum, as he’s called, suffers from progeria, a degenerative disease that causes accelerated aging from age two. At sixteen, he has the organs of an old man and is in precipitous physical decline. Despite his prognosis, Areum tells his story with wry humor, showing great curiosity about himself as well as the people around him, starting with his parents, who had him when they themselves were sixteen.

The prologue is a poem that frames the novel:

A year in my life is like a month in someone else’s . . . .
My dad sees his future eighty-year-old face in mine . . . .
Is sixteen the right age to become a parent?
Is thirty-two the right age to lose a child? . . .
This is the story of the youngest parents and the oldest child.

This mismatch between body and mind is My Brilliant Life’s touchstone. Areum’s condition affects both his mental age and his body. He is boy-man, a young and old soul. He has had to face his mortality since toddlerhood, making him a wise and dispassionate observer of his dreadful illness. He is filled with wonder and love about his boisterous family. 

The narrator writes a book within the book, so that My Brilliant Life turns out to be the story of Areum telling the story of his parents. Separately, he includes an account of his deeply private affection for a girl his own age. Kim develops this structure naturally, without fanfare. It is not clear until the end whether Areum is telling his parents' story as a way to understand himself and his origins better, to evade his predicament, to create a substitute for his absent social life, or some combination of the three. Only after completing the novel is it apparent how masterfully the book is woven together.

Early on, Areum asks: “Why did God make me the way I am? I haven’t been able to figure that out yet.” Even if he can’t find the ultimate reason or meaning for his condition, there is much for readers to learn about humor and compassion along his journey. Underneath the frothiness lies a tragic story of isolation and pain, but also of empathy. It is easy to see why My Brilliant Life became a best seller in South Korea, where it was made into a film as well (My Brilliant Life [English translation], co-written and directed by E J-yong, 2014).

My Brilliant Life resonates with several English-language works. Andrew Sean Greer’s The Confessions of Max Tivoli, itself based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald story (later film) “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” deployed a similar narrator. In Greer’s novel, Max Tivoli is born with the body of an old man, but the mind of a baby. He ages physically backward but mentally forward, until he is an old adult living in an infant’s body. Swept along in a compelling narrative, the reader knows that all will not end well. In British writer Ian McEwan’s Nutshell, the narrator is a fetus in utero, who, like Areum, possesses wisdom beyond his years. The fetus may not have all the answers, but he knows how to raise the right questions, ringing alarm bells about the future.

Where Greer and McEwan’s books are purposeful, plot-driven novels, Kim’s is more introspective. Areum is at pains to understand his parents’ teenage romance, given how young they were when they had him. Although he couldn’t possibly have been there, he describes his parents’ teen lives, his father Desu’s athletic prowess and his mother Mira’s silly flirtations pre-pregnancy. Desu excels at Tae Kwon Do, which doesn’t earn him any money. When Mira discloses her pregnancy, Desu launches into how much of a “loser” he is. “There’s this bug that camouflages itself with shit so it won’t get eaten by a bird,” Mira says almost lovingly, “That’s you.” As soon as it becomes known she’s expecting, Mira is thrown out of school.

Against severe family opprobrium and with no income, Mira and Desu commit to parenthood. Despite their initial condemnation, the extended family ends up embracing Areum and his parents; Areum grows up among loving, if obstreperous, relatives. His parents are so young that Areum has both a grandfather and a great-grandfather, known affectionately as Big Grandpa Jang and Little Grandpa Jang.

At no point does Areum doubt his parents’ love for him. Theirs is a constant struggle not only to make ends meet but also to care for their aging son and his frequent medical emergencies. Mira quickly progresses from a giggling, girly high school student into a committed mother. Desu dreams big, or as big as his condition allows for, and opens a Nike store. He never quite manages to make a living out of it, however. The store eventually closes, but not before outfits the whole family in Nike wear.

Areum’s parents are at his side through sickness and health, except for one time when Mira can’t take it and bolts. The implication is that Mira is crushed under the burden of responsibility at home, but her absence lasts only for a week. Areum gets inside the heads of both parents to let us know what they’re thinking and how they’re feeling. We may not know how he has the power to do this, but we trust his judgment. He provides a detailed account of his birth, as if he can remember it all. He was a preemie and describes how the house changed once he and Mira came home from the hospital. “Everything smelled like the milky scent of a newly breastfeeding mother, the sour stench of my poop and spit-up, and freshly washed cotton hanging in the sun to dry.”

Areum feels himself to be at once the loneliest boy in the world and the most beloved. His best friend is Little Grandpa Jang, to whom he relates both mentally and physically. As if Areum were also an old man and not sixteen, he listens to Little Grandpa’s complaints about the youth of today. “He’s a really bad kid,” Little Grandpa jokes affectionately. “He treats me like I’m some neighborhood kid . . . . He seems to think we’re peers.”

Who is the parent, and who the child? Areum ends up agreeing to an uncomfortable TV interview, knowing that he is exploiting his own condition to raise money for his medical treatments. This episode ends on a sour and depressing note, with people that Areum trusted letting him down in profound ways. Media may love tragedy, but for the boy in the middle of it, fame is a terrible burden. Areum suffers the painful consequences of celebrity like an age-appropriate, duped teenager. At the same time, he manages to retain his equanimity.

Author Ae-ran Kim is widely published in South Korea. She has won the Kim Yu-jeong Literary Award, the Lee Hyoseok Literary Award, and the Prix de l’inaperçu for her short fiction and collections, but has published only a few pieces in English. As a bookend to the opening of My Brilliant Life, Ae-ran Kim provides an author’s note, also in the form of a poem:

I hope my heart will fly to the wind to go to you.
         There is no knowing if this song will become a seed or a whistle or
                           an unknown face.

The book feels like a seed, using the metaphor of disease and tragedy to sow a discussion of the importance of compassion. English language readers, most new to Kim’s work, will find much to relish. In the same author’s note, Kim writes that her aim is to “breathe warmth into forgotten names.” Clearly, she has breathed warmth into Areum and his family. We can only hope for more from her.

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