by Priya Singh
Old age has no cure; there are only ways to delay the inevitable. Aerum is sixteen, the same age as his parents had been when he was born. In the face of a chronic illness that is rapidly aging and deteriorating his body, his survival thus far is considered miraculous. But Aerum never thinks of himself as a miracle. For him, miracles reside in the ordinary: in the books he devours, in his mom and dad and his neighbor and best friend, Little Grandpa Jang. The truly miraculous is a freedom so often taken for granted — to be able to live a full life and die of old age. As a final gift to his parents, Aerum has been secretly working on a manuscript which he hopes to present to them on his seventeenth birthday. It is the story of how they met, of their love, and of how that love ultimately created an enduring family bond.
Kim Ae-ran’s debut novel, My Brilliant Life, is a brief, beautiful coming-of-age story that transposes the notions of what it means to be mature and to age. Aerum’s story begins with his parents: sixteen-year-old Mira tells her boyfriend Daesu that she is pregnant. It’s a community and family scandal. However, Mira is a tough, popular girl who will not be weighed down by shame. She is going to take on her new role as wife and mother with unabashed pride. “We’ll finish raising the baby while everyone else is still in school, so that when they are in the workforce, all we have to do is hang out and let the kid support us.” While social stigma does follow the family throughout the book, I found their relationship to be a refreshing take on teen pregnancy. There is genuine tenderness that transcends age; through all of their fears and life changes, what they want most is a healthy baby who will love them. Rather than portraying Mira and Daesu as two people who rose above a youthful mistake, the story is, in many ways, about three people growing up together.
Starting with his first observations of the world from the womb, anchored by the steady beat of his mother’s heart, Aerum not only shows us his gift for observation, but his curiosity, both about the world around him and the one out of reach. Since he’s unable to attend school due to his illness, books serve as his teachers and peers. What he cannot answer, he assigns to himself as essays. Aerum is a writer at heart. Whether it is in the manuscript for his parents, or in emails to an internet friend, he is on a constant search for the right words. As a writer myself, I’ve found that some of the anxieties he faced are ever present. Am I using the right word to convey a feeling? Will the story lose the reader halfway through for lack of heart-pounding action or twists? As this is Aerum’s first creative writing project, his challenges often come across as those of someone trying out ways to pep up the story for excitement’s sake. “Should I change ‘might have had cancer’ to ‘collaborated with the Japanese’?”
Although Aerum is not defined by his illness, it has made him unusually sensitive to the constant grief and worry that his parents try to conceal. “‘When you feel alone, when the world feels like the vast Pacific?’ ‘Yeah?’ ‘I’ll be your tiger.’” Conversely, because Aerum’s face reflects the aged version of themselves, Mira and Daesu can sometimes forget that he’s a kid when they talk to him. In fact, most of the characters in this book don’t act their age. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Aerum’s friendship with Little Grandpa Jang. Although Grandpa is well into his sixties, he doesn’t feel old. They sit in comfortable silence, two outwardly aged men on a park bench, where they debate about the problems with youth, and why old people like to criticize them. Little Grandpa Jang is a valuable repository of wisdom for many of Aerum’s adolescent life puzzles and “what-if” scenarios: “You always say you’re old, but believing that you can make that choice shows how young you really are. You’re asking the wrong question.”
Despite the genuine wisdom of Aerum’s narrative voice, there’s no mistaking his innocence. He’s still the teenager pestering Grandpa to buy him alcohol and asking for advice about a girl. Such moments are all the more powerful when contrasted with the brusque, pragmatic way the doctors would deliver his diagnoses.
Aerum’s story offers highs full of wit and humor, followed by sudden lows that clenched my heart at regular intervals. Originally written in Korean, My Brilliant Life has a gorgeous rhythm to its prose, and well-paced, believable dialogue. This not only speaks to the quality of Kim Ae-ran’s writing, but also to Kim Chi-Young’s talent as a translator. The book has one frustrating quirk: experiences are often described with opposing adjectives like “clear but dim, distant but close.” But I will immediately contradict myself: when you consider that these are Aerum’s words, going into his manuscript, it works. His narrative voice is poetic, his observations touched with humor and honesty. I never felt that he was an unreliable narrator or that his voice was exaggerated — after all, we are seeing his story through his eyes after all.
Kim Ae-ran’s novel is a compact and intense study of aging, living and loving. Aerum’s illness is not what defines him, just as Mira and Daesu aren’t defined by being young parents. Instead this is the story of a family who learns that age doesn’t necessarily mean having all the answers, just as youth doesn’t always come with the luxury of innocence. My Brilliant Life is a series of bounds towards the open skies, touched by moments of utter heartbreak. I couldn’t put it down until I had followed Aerum’s story to the end.
Editors’ Note: You may notice the author’s name appears more than one way in print (see book cover above). In Korean, the family name (Kim) comes first and the given name/what we could consider the first name follows (Ae-Ran). We chose to follow the Korean tradition in our review. Additionally, the character Aerum is not related to Grandpa Jang but as a show of respect, Korean people address someone of his age as Halmonni and Haraboji (Grandma and Grandpa).