Deep, unnerving look into a twisted mind

Jeong You-jeong is regarded as one of the top mystery and crime writers in her native South Korea and has even drawn comparisons with United States' Stephen King.

And she easily justifies this billing in The Good Son - her fourth novel and the first to be translated into English. It is a slow-burn crime thriller that is not just a powerful page-turner, but succeeds in worming its way under your skin.

Kim Chi-young, the translator, does a splendid job with the haunting source material and the novel has been listed as a "Summer Must Read" by the likes of Entertainment Weekly and Vulture, and was also featured on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

Jeong, who was trained as a nurse, writes with such controlled clinical precision that the reader is transported into the mind of the narrator and the titular "Good Son", 25-year-old Han Yu-jin.

Han, a swim champ on the verge of making the national team, is forced to abandon his dreams as he is prone to bouts of epileptic seizures. He now aspires to become a lawyer.

He wakes up disoriented one morning to a metallic smell, which he at first groggily attributes to an unwelcome side effect of skipping his medication. But he soon realises in horror that he is covered in blood.

With a hazy memory of the last 12 hours, he stumbles down the flight of stairs in his family's swanky duplex to find his mother lying in a pool of blood with her throat slit open. There are no signs of intruders.

His brother Kim Hae-jin, an orphan adopted into the family after Yu-jin's own biological father and brother drowned in a mishap when he was a child, had apparently not been home the entire night.

  • FICTION

  • THE GOOD SON

    By Jeong You-jeong, translated by Kim Chi-young

    Little, Brown Book Group/ Paperback/313 pages/$27.77/ Books Kinokuniya/ 4-1/2 stars

The whodunit locked-room mystery is solved quite early on, at which point the novel evolves into a chilling psychological look down the rabbit hole into a seriously unhinged mind.

The Good Son flits between flashbacks and fantasies, delusions and diary entries, as Han, himself an unreliable narrator given his woolly recollections, tries to piece together the events leading up to the tragedy.

Jeong reportedly takes inspiration from a real-life case in the climactic scene.

The original Korean title of her novel translates as The Origin Of Species and the fictional killer was described as listening to the electronic song Conquest Of Paradise (1992) by Greek composer Vangelis.

This is just how convicted cannibal and serial killer - and now death-row inmate - Yoo Young-chul had psyched himself up before going after his prey from 2003 to 2004.

The Good Son is dark and claustrophobic - just as you would picture the palette of Korean crime movies like Confession Of Murder (2012), about a policeman haunted for his failure to nab a serial killer 15 years ago, and who was taunted into reopening the case after the killer publishes a book to claim responsibility for the crimes.

Jeong's novel is also getting the big-screen treatment, where her twisted journey into the psychopathic mind will come alive.

And one can also only hope that her other three novels will, too, be translated for an English audience.

If you like this, read: Please Look After Mom by Shin Kyung-sook (Vintage Books, 2012, $24.69, Books Kinokuniya). Shin's book, also deftly translated by Kim Chi-young, provides a haunting glimpse at the concept of family in Korean culture in this 2012 winner of the Man Asian literary award. A family frantically looks for their mother who goes missing at a busy Seoul subway station, but along the way, they realise they do not really know who she is.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 18, 2018, with the headline 'Deep, unnerving look into a twisted mind'. Print Edition | Subscribe