Can't I Go Instead is an epic work of historical fiction by acclaimed Korean author Lee Geum-yi that vividly brings to life the tumultuous early 20th century in Korea. Spanning decades, continents, and the harrowing fates of two Korean women, this profoundly moving saga sheds light on a painful history rarely examined.
Lee Geum-yi is renowned for her meticulous research and ability to humanise history through fiction. Here she traces the parallel journeys of Chaeryeong, the sheltered daughter of a Korean nobleman, and Sunam, the young girl purchased by Chaeryeong's father to serve as her handmaiden. Though Sunam is technically a "gift," the transaction that tears her from her family epitomises the commodification of poor Koreans under Japan's colonial rule.
When Chaeryeong falls in love with an independence activist, she finds herself punished by being forced into an arranged marriage with a Japanese man and shipped off to America. In a cruel twist of fate, Sunam is made to take Chaeryeong's place, becoming a “comfort woman” exploited by the Japanese Imperial Army.
Lee's prose (in a translation by An Seon Jae) unsparingly depicts the violence endured by Sunam and other comfort women. Her empathy also shines through in portrayals of Chaeryeong's struggles with racism and internment as a Japanese American during WWII. We come to intimately understand these women as fully realised characters shaped and scarred by forces beyond their control.
After independence, both Chaeryeong and Sunam make their way back to a Korea forever changed by the ravages of colonialism and war. Their complicated reunion and struggle to reclaim their identities shows the permanence of the trauma inflicted by the tumultuous first half of the 20th century in East Asia.
At times the narrative becomes a little rant-like towards the Americans, not undeservingly. Despite the rationale behind this position, the plot becomes a little lost in these moments of tirade and the overall impression of the text is muddied.
Lee's exhaustive research into the realities of the era, from the atrocities of the Imperial Army to the treatment of Asians in America, underpins this propulsive novel. Fans of emotional yet historically accurate fiction will find Can't I Go Instead a transportive reading experience and meaningful perspective on the past.
Reviewer: Chris Reed