Book Review: ‘The Only Child’ Is Almost Amazing But Gets Lost In Translation

Review by Adrina Palmer

An eerie and absorbing novel following a criminal psychologist who has discovered shocking and possibly dangerous connections between a serial killer and her stepdaughter.

Korean writer Mi-ae Seo wrote ‘The Only Child’ and now it’s been translated into English but it falls short of working. Back in Korea, her books are best-selling, and you can tell why; her writing style works, she drops enough clues, the topic and characters grab you, but too many other aspects get lost in the translation. I’ll go into specifics below, but first, if you can read Korean, read this book in the original language, and you may have a totally different experience than I did.

Seonkyeong (I called her Songkong in my head because I have no clue how to pronounce the name) works as a criminal psychologist, and oddly enough, a serial killer – Yi Byeongdo – trapped in prison, wants her to interview him. As she preps for her first interview, her husband, Jaeseong (Jason in my head), brings home his daughter from a previous marriage. His eleven-year-old daughter Hayeong comes with a terrible past threatening to interrupt Seonkyeong’s life.

The day prior, Hayeong had survived a fire that took the life of her grandparents, whom she had been living with instead of her father. Her mother had killed herself a few months back, a controlling and manipulative woman who used Hayeong as a pawn to win Jaeseong back without luck. Nothing is what it seems, though, and when the scarred child enters her stepmom’s life, she doesn’t want to share her father, especially with the woman who stole him. Meanwhile, Yi Byeongdo’s past flares up in small increments sandwiched between Seonkyeong’s new life with a daughter.

Jaeseong works at the hospital, caring more for his patients than his small family. Unsure of how to handle the guilt of abandoning his daughter and her living through so much tragedy, he tries to bribe her with promises and gifts instead of with time. Nor does he spend time with his wife. Instead, they live more like roommates with benefits while Seonkyeong bears the burden of caring for the child. When not enrolling the child in school and handling the necessities, Seonkyeong goes to the hospital to try and understand why Yi Byeongdo felt the need to murder woman after woman in an attempt to deal with a terrible childhood with his mother.

Clues begin to present themselves, showing parallels between Hayeong and Yi Byeongdo Seonkyeong tries to avoid. The interviews falter with each visit due to her mercurial subject, and life, in general, changes too quickly for Seonkyeong to bear, with her releasing her tension on the trauma-ridden child. The conclusion brings the pieces together and spirals Seonkyeong’s world even further out of her control.

Let’s move on to the issues starting with Jaeseong. Understanding this man gets lost in the translation. Maybe, in Korea, it’s okay to abandon your child with a mentally unstable mother, then discard the child with her grandparents, then leave her with your new wife, but in America, these actions more than border on narcissistic child abuse. This man never ever considers anyone else but himself, and reading about him and not seeing him get his comeuppance is rather difficult.

Next, Seonkyeong herself leaves much to be desired. She’s not strong, she’s not nice, nor does she display the type of intelligence you would expect from a psychologist. Her understanding of a child’s nature is tenuous at best, but at least this makes sense as she seems to have no experience with children. A strong heroine would have been so much more enjoyable to read, someone capable of discovering discrepancies in the many people in her life. Seonkyeong fails to see even glaring details slapping her in the face.

Yi Byeongdo’s comes with an interesting backstory, but as an old man facing death trying to get his story heard, he fails. His temperamental personality lacks sincerity. As a sociopath, you can’t expect him to be helpful, but you can expect him to have an end game, and his was lackluster and without plausibility. I don’t know about you, but I expect more from my nefarious fictional characters. The most important question surrounding Yi was answered in the listed connected way possible and felt like losing hours when it finally arrived. Even the interviews gave very little information or enjoyment as neither character had any chemistry.

The saving grace of the book, since the characters failed to live up to expectation, is the ending. Hayeong works too. This little girl is anything but dumb and lovable, and it’s about the only part I enjoyed by the end once all of the answers lacked a viable conclusion. Overall, the book just lost too much in the translation. It’s almost as if the author had a drink or two one night and came up with a wonderful idea for a story and successfully pitched the idea. Then, once sober, forgot all of the essential details but decided to wing it and failed. As I said, it’s almost great but misses the mark.

Available in bookstores February 11th

James McDonald
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