Lee Kyung Hye
One Day I Died
Baram Books/Korea. Sold to Rye Field Publishing/Taiwan, Picquier/France, Geração Editorial/Brazil.
We have the complete French translation and a new English partial with a new translation by acclaimed Janet Hong whose bestselling translation of Han Yujoo’s The Impossible Fairy Tale was a finalist for the 2018 PEN Translation Prize .
Lee Kyung-hye’s One Day I Died recounts the story of a teenage girl Yoomi coping with the sudden and unexpected death of her best friend, Jae-jun, who died in a motorcycle accident. Months after his death, Yoomi is given his journal by his mother. By reading the journal, which is the only thing that is left of Jae-jun, Yoomi is allowed to better understand his life and to slowly accept his death. The book grabs the readers from the beginning with the first two lines of Jae-jun’s journal: “One day I died. What is the meaning of my death?” These first lines may seem like a morbid indication of Jae-jun’s deep-laden depression or even suicidal thoughts, but they are in fact a testament to a teenager’s attempt at embracing and fully appreciating life. Before his tragic accident, Jae-jun invents a game called “Corpse Game” in which he and his friends compete for the best imitation of the dead. Through this surreal experience of utter lifelessness, however, Jae-jun comes to appreciate his life, even his boring school and his disapproving father. Only by directly confronting death is he able to understand the value of life. Thus, Lee champions life through death, which are the paradox and the beauty that lie within her book.
The book is a fluid dialogue between Jae-jun’s journal and Yoomi’s thoughts as she is reading the journal. The playful yet sensible voice of Jae-jun and the heartbroken yet strained voice of Yoomi are artfully weaved to create an intricate story of the two friends. Though they are two completely different characters (he is sensitive and affectionate, while she is cynical and rebellious), Lee paints their friendship with the perfect balance between playfulness and depth. Jae-jun’s journal is his first and final attempt at being understood and through Yoomi’s eyes, the journal flourishes to reveal Jae-jun’s hidden aspirations and scars, painting him, though dead, as the most alive character. One Day I Died powerfully captures the confusion and the pressure that many adolescents face, as they try to expand their identity beyond the confines of school and standards defined by adults. Though these adolescents are never fully heard or understood, they, through this achingly beautiful novel, claim their place in the world that often tries to engulf and silence them. And because they are still incomplete and unpredictable, their raw and unseasoned emotions are rendered more sincere. Everything that is expressed in the novel becomes achingly personal. The characters helplessly fall in love and experience real heartaches. They encounter loss and learn to cope with it. They search for their emotional outlets by writing on paper what they are too afraid to say out loud. Lee treats the concerns and dreams of adolescents with utmost seriousness, imparting them a uniquely faltering voice between childhood and adulthood. This is a book that suits both a younger and an older generation of readers. The universal themes of confusion, loss, rebellion and maturation are effortlessly depicted through the simple plotline and the intricate character development. From beginning to end, the story is profoundly sad, but Lee succeeds in lightening up the sentimentality of the novel through the brisk and biting voice of Yoomi, characteristic of a rebellious teen. The novel does not simply dwell and sulk in the tragedy, but is propelled forward by the force of life and of hope. The novel is an easy read, but a riveting one as well.