Are you ready to be one of the first to get an exclusive look at Ae-ran Kim’s debut novel? Translated from Korean by the award-winning Chi-Young Kim, My Brilliant Life follows Areum, who is working on a manuscript about his parents and his childhood. My Brilliant Life will hit shelves on January 26, 2021. We Are Bookish has an exclusive reveal of the cover and an excerpt, but first, here’s the official summary for My Brilliant Life:
“My Brilliant Life is a moving, earnest, and deeply-felt exploration of a unique family in all its joys and disappointments . . . an utter delight.” —Claire Lombardo, New York Times bestselling author of The Most Fun We Ever Had
Despite being house-bound due to an accelerated-aging disorder, Areum lives life to its fullest, vicariously through the stories of his parents, conversations with Little Grandpa Jang—his sixty-year-old neighbor and best friend, and through the books he reads to visit the places he would otherwise never see.
For several months, Areum has been working on a manuscript, piecing together his parents’ often embellished stories about his family and childhood. He hopes to present it on his birthday, as a final gift to his mom and dad; their own falling-in-love story.
As his seventeenth birthday approaches, Areum moves into the long-term ward in the city hospital, bringing abrupt change to his daily life; from a new friend who might be more—or less—than she seems, to his loving parents who are definitely keeping something from him. There are also the challenges of the creeping darkness in his eyes, and the loneliness of his shrinking connection to the world outside his window. Areum meets these situations head on, and with the support of family and friends, finds joy in even the most difficult times.
Interweaving the past and present of a tight-knit family, Ae-ran Kim’s My Brilliant Life evokes the full breadth of human emotions; happiness and sadness, pain and relief, emptiness and significance; masterfully exploring the power of empathy.
Now, let’s get our first peek at My Brilliant Life!
Here’s an excerpt of the first chapter:
My grandmother had six children: five sons and a daughter. Once I asked, “Mom, why did Grandmother and Grandfather have so many kids when they never got along?” “Well—she said they did it once in a blue moon and each time she got pregnant.” My mom was the baby of the family and was known in her childhood as Princess Fuck; having grown up around foulmouthed men, she dropped curse words at every opportunity. I feel close to my mom when I think about the small, adorable girl she would have been, wandering around the village, swearing. She’s still feisty, but she must have toned down her vocabulary when she got knocked up and got kicked out of school, or when my dad was beaten to a pulp by her five brothers over it. Or maybe it was when she had to stare at the hospital bills she couldn’t afford.
From the very beginning, my grandfather didn’t like his son-in-law. For one, my dad, a kid who was still wet behind the ears, had gone and made another kid who was soaked behind the ears. My dad also couldn’t eke out a living, though that wasn’t all that unusual for a sixteen-year-old high school student. At their first encounter, my grandfather launched into a sullen interrogation. “So what are you good at?”
This was after a hurricane of tears and screams that accompanied the news of my mom’s pregnancy had subsided.
Kneeling before my grandfather, my dad was at a loss. “I’m good at Tae Kwon Do, sir.”
My grandfather grunted disapprovingly. While my dad’s Tae Kwon Do skills had landed him in the largest athletic program in the province, that didn’t make money.
My dad was made anxious by my grandfather’s silence. “Would you like to see?” He balled his fists, as if he were going to throw a punch at my grandfather, who flinched involuntarily.
“Are you saying you can make money with your fists?”
“Um, well, when I graduate I can work at a Tae Kwon Do studio . . .” He trailed off, knowing there was no chance he would be able to finish school.
My grandfather tried to give him another chance. “What else are you good at?”
Thoughts flew through my dad’s head. I’m good at Street Fighter. He couldn’t say that; his new father-in-law might punch him in the face. I’m good at talking back to teachers . . . Even he knew that these were not the answers his father-in-law wanted. What am I good at? A few minutes of agony later, he finally admitted, “I’m not sure, sir.”
That was when he realized it. Oh. I’m good at giving up.
Later, my grandfather said mockingly, “He can’t do anything other than breed.”
“Well, that’s certainly a talent, too,” grumbled my grandmother.
Without speaking, my mom sat primly nearby, her bangs flattened and secured to one side by a pin in the style of the day.
My grandfather looked into the distance. “A poor man should at least have some kind of bravado. I don’t know. He’s like an idiot.” He sounded more disappointed in his daughter’s taste than in her actions.
But my grandfather had failed to recognize who my dad really was. Sure, he was an idiot, but he was brash and adventurous, the most dangerous kind of idiot. That was why he got into a fistfight with the officiant at his wedding, then abandoned his new wife to hang out with his buddies. That was also why he dabbled disastrously in a variety of ventures on the foolish recommendation of his friends. On a trip to Bulguksa Temple, he’d had our family motto, “Trust Between Friends,” calligraphed and framed at a souvenir shop and hung it proudly in our house.
My grandfather urged my dad to graduate. Since he would get kicked out of his program for impregnating a girl, he could enroll in a nearby school and at the very least get a diploma. Unfortunately, rumor and gossip travel at lightning speed and no school was interested in taking him, claiming that a student like my dad would damage their reputation and set a bad example for the other kids. My grandfather, who assumed his recommendation as a village leader would prevail, was humiliated by the rejection and ended up suggesting working in construction while studying for the high school equivalency exam. Though construction work was ostensibly a way for my dad to support his growing family, there had to be a part of my grandfather that wanted to make the boy who dared touch his daughter suffer for a few months. As my dad’s family was poor and unable to support us, he had to heed his father-in-law’s wishes.
Around that time, the county began a push to bring in tourists with the slogan “Daeho, a fun-loving city.” The village economy experienced a short-lived boost. Excavators, concrete mixers, and trucks drove into our quiet village. Everything was soon covered in dust. The construction company gave out free supplies—stationery, ballpoint pens, correction ink, colorful sticky notes, mechanical pencil lead refills, all imprinted with the company logo—to all the schools that might be impacted by construction. The villagers received detergent, cookware, and kitchen tools. But as with all things that were free in this world, there was a whiff of something unpleasant about the transaction.
The major project was enlarging the creek to enable sightseeing from a boat. Eventually, our village and a few neighboring ones would be submerged.
My grandfather, who had a head for numbers, built a small concrete-and-slate-roof house in their front yard for the workers who swarmed in from other towns. He gave one room to my parents, and though there wasn’t much of a kitchen to speak of, and it was far too small, my parents say they never complained because they were living there for free. My dad went to work in construction with the itinerant laborers who lived in the concrete house with us. He was teased but beloved at work, with everyone calling him Han the Married Man. The village elders patted him on the back, saying, “Around here, you’re an adult when you get married,” and joked, “The Chois got a son-in-law for free!” My dad was briefly satisfied with his work. He enjoyed the men’s earthy talk, and had turned respectable in his in-laws’ eyes. Even before he got my mom pregnant, he’d wanted to quit Tae Kwon Do; he was tired of being ordered around. Now that he was out in the real world, working alongside real men, he wanted to climb up a peak, rip open his shirt, and roar, “This is real life!” But in just a few days, he realized how backbreaking it was to use his hands to make a living.
My dad learned about me in a café frequented by students, near the intercity bus terminal in town. My mom had gone on a few group dates there. Once, she’d gone there on a blind date with a boy who was in a biker gang. Afterward, he drove his motorcycle to her school and did wheelies in the yard, shouting “Mira! I love you!” before roaring away in a cloud of dust. All the girls named Mira—Kim Mira, Park Mira, and my mom, Choi Mira—were questioned by the teacher.
The group dates usually started at that café and ended with karaoke. Awkward boys who didn’t say a word in the café became extroverted when they gripped a mic. They would shove all the tables to one side of the dark, dank room and dance violently to Seo Taiji or Deux, singing, “Time will never stop. Yo!” or “Now I have to be brave to be able to have you.” A girl would sing the first few measures of a duet before furtively putting the mic down on a table, and a boy who liked her would grab the mic and sing the next verse. Boys fell first for my mom’s beauty and then for her voice. When she put down the mic, several hands would shoot out to grab it. Although there were a number of boys’ high schools in the area, few boys interested her. The students who studied practical subjects like agriculture were more outgoing and spent more lavishly, but she liked how confident humanities students were. My dad was the first boy she ever met who was in an athletic program, and they met not on one of those dates but in an unexpected place, by chance. Anyway, my mom thought my dad had the self-esteem of a smart kid but also the inferiority of being an athlete in a society that held scholars in high regard.
On the day my dad learned about me, my parents were sitting in the fairly empty café. He glanced at her, wondered why she was wearing such a thoughtful expression, and worried that she wanted to break up again. They hadn’t seen each other in a while, and she suddenly looked mature to him. She sipped her lemonade and licked her lips before she spoke.
“Daesu, come here.”
“Just do it.”
He leaned across the table.
She whispered in his ear, one hand covering her mouth. Her soft breath tickled the fuzz on his earlobe. He grinned, not concentrating on her words. Soon, his face turned pale. “Why did you wait so long to tell me?” he nearly shouted.
People turned to look.
“Why are you yelling?” my mom snapped, her voice even louder than my dad’s. “I hate when people yell!”
They put their sixteen-year-old heads together for a solution, but came up with nothing.
Eyes downcast, my dad toyed with a small parasol planted in his parfait. “Mira, I—” he began, launching into how much of a loser he was, how he could never be a good father, how he had no money, how he was afraid of disappointing people, and how, now that he was thinking about it, there were people in his family tree who might have had cancer. He rambled on incoherently.
My mom listened quietly until he finished. Gently, she said, “Daesu.”
“There’s this bug that camouflages itself with shit so it won’t get eaten by a bird.”
Ae-ran Kim was born in Incheon, South Korea, the youngest of three daughters. She has won the Korea Ilbo Literary Award, Kim Yu-jeong Literary Award, Lee Hyo-seok Literary Award, and the Prix de l’ Inapercu award, among others, for her short fiction and collections. My Brilliant Life is her first novel.