Published: 21st April 2020
Genre: Historical Fiction/Crime
Trigger warnings: Animal death/cruelty, injury detail, misogyny
1800, Joseon (Korea). Homesick and orphaned sixteen-year-old Seol is living out the ancient curse: “May you live in interesting times.” Indentured to the police bureau, she’s been tasked with assisting a well-respected young inspector with the investigation into the politically charged murder of a noblewoman.
As they delve deeper into the dead woman’s secrets, Seol forms an unlikely bond of friendship with the inspector. But her loyalty is tested when he becomes the prime suspect, and Seol may be the only one capable of discovering what truly happened on the night of the murder.
But in a land where silence and obedience are valued above all else, curiosity can be deadly.
This is an evocative and acutely powerful book with a profound method of storytelling that delivers uniqueness in abundance. The sense of atmosphere is present throughout as we are accompanied by a fantastic protagonist and a captivating setting, all of which is brought to life with the help of a multi-layered plot and beautifully poetic writing that gives everything an added depth of meaning.
It is a mystery first and foremost, but it soon becomes apparent that there is much more to the story than that individual aspect. There is a considerable emphasis on the historical context and as such real events act as something of a backdrop, while the themes it explores provide the most lasting memory. Altogether, it makes for a very gripping and immersive read.
The year is 1800 and Seol is an orphaned servant working for the police in the Korean capital of Hanyang. When a noblewoman is violently murdered, she is tasked with assisting the investigation, which is being led by the wise and influential Inspector Han. After interviewing some of those closest to the victim, she finds that the killing was politically motivated.
Seol soon begins to idolise the Inspector for his shrewd and calculating mind, and the two develop a mutual respect after she displays crime-solving instincts and even saves his life. He goes on to become a kind of mentor towards her, but everything changes after Seol disobeys an instruction and lands herself in danger.
As she uncovers more evidence and divisions start to appear within the police force, Inspector Han suddenly emerges as the prime suspect after doubt is cast over his testimony. This tests Seol’s previously unwavering loyalty to the limit and causes her an impossible dilemma, especially given that she and the Inspector might be more closely connected than she originally thought.
The plot brings with it a permanent sense of urgency that had me clinging to every word, and it is complimented brilliantly by the many insights into the time period and culture. To find out for example that male police officers refrained from questioning female servants was extremely enlightening, while the brutal persecution of Catholics in that era acts as part of the basis for the story, as explained in the author’s note at the end.
There is understandably a lot of focus on the dynamic between Seol and Inspector Han, but the mystery still manages to be intricate and intriguing as some characters conceal their motives and others are too fearful to give much away. The stakes are always high although the pace definitely increases later on as Seol gets deeper into the case, with the question of Inspector Han’s guilt hanging ominously in the air.
The entire book is told in the first person from Seol’s point of view, and she is just everything you want from a protagonist. She has an unshakeable curiosity that was infectious for me as the reader, along with a real selflessness and diligence to her personality, so it was easy to root for her. Much is also made of her sense of loyalty, which carries a huge amount of significance, and the writing really captures the internal struggle she feels to live up to it.
It was wonderful to see Seol develop over the course of the story and become such a strong and independent character, especially after the way she is belittled by some of the male police officers early on. The affinity she has with her fellow servants was nice too, such as when Aejung teaches her how to read and the way she acts as a reassuring presence to Soyi.
Inspector Han is the most complex character of all and he remains something of an enigma even after the last page. There are both good and bad sides to his personality, coming across as very honourable most of the time but with occasional hints towards a darker side. A real antihero, he definitely seems capable at times of being the murderer and that makes it all the more fascinating.
Most of the other police officers and statesmen were occasionally difficult to tell apart, with the main exception being Officer Kyon, who is vain and self-centred but does possess other layers to his character that prevent him from becoming a cliché. As for Lady Kang, I loved her resilience and the degree of feminism she brought to the story.
The setting is realised in a way that gives the book a marvellous sense of place, and it is clear that an immense amount of research went into the historical element. Amid the persecution of Catholics the city is made to feel very oppressive, while the politics of the police bureau and the wild animals that inhabit the surrounding forests help add to the escapism.
Along with the concept and the characters, what truly makes this such a good read is the writing. It is lyrical and teeming with elegance, while the numerous meaningful passages give an emotional weight to the proceedings. That applies more than ever at the end, which is slightly bittersweet but also very arresting in the way certain themes get their closure.
Overall, this was an excellent debut which provided so much to admire. It is unique and descriptive, with an intensity to the plot that never relents, all experienced through Seol’s powerful and extraordinary perspective. The setting is vivid and authentic, and the intriguing, historically inspired mystery is not bad either. A really impressive piece of storytelling.
After reading this book I found some of the concepts so fascinating that I felt inspired to write a poem about it which I have decided to share. Addressed to Seol, it explores her identity and relationship with Inspector Han. Hope you like it!
A New Calling
You arrived here by chance
An orphan lost in the depths of Hanyang
Thoughts of reunion etched in your mind
With only a drawing in the palm of your hand
Years pass by and you dream of home
But until mission is accomplished, there’s nowhere to go
You earn a living at the hands of the bureau
Where everything changes on the death of Lady O
Solving a crime becomes your calling
A new curiosity that burns like a flame
Lowly in rank but with courage in spades
Desperate to learn who carries the blame
The Inspector guides you along by his side
A beacon of honour with the greatest repute
Until there comes the hint of a lie
Casting impossible doubt on the man you thought you knew
Born in South Korea, June Hur was raised in Canada and studied literature and history at the University of Toronto before becoming an author. Her work is inspired by her own experiences, including aspects such as her heritage and Christian faith as well as the exploration of thoughts and feelings.
Released in 2020, The Silence Of Bones is her first novel and it was selected by the American Booksellers Association as one of the top debuts of the year. Her next book, The Forest Of Stolen Girls, was published in April 2021.
I found this book absorbing right from the start, immediately connecting with the concept and Seol as a main character. The excellent storytelling continued throughout, making it one of my best reads of the year thus far.
My rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐.5