A Hint of Light
by David L. Meth (Korea 1971–72)
CreateSpace Writers’ Productions
Reviewed by Barbara E. Joe (Honduras 2000–03)
THIS NOVEL, REPORTEDLY WRITTEN by an award-winning playwright, chronicles the life of a black-Korean street boy, Byung-suk, born in 1960, who dreams of living in America, his unknown GI father’s home. Indeed, with its prolific dialogue and rapidly shifting graphic scenes, the book has aspects of a play or even of a film script. According to the cover blurb, the author, David Meth, spent years doing research, including in Korea and Japan.
The narrative starts out with a bang, offering a gritty, dramatic tale of the squalor, violence, and unrelenting challenges of young Byung-suk’s struggle for survival in an Oliver Twistian underworld of prostitution, thievery, drunkenness, extortion, and physical deprivation. The early sections, depicting the tumultuous post-war era of the author’s Volunteer service in Korea — including a walk-on by two PCVs — are almost overwhelming in their horror, but still ring true. They reveal Meth’s intimate knowledge, sincerity, and attention to detail, and evoke genuine sympathy for the war’s throw-away children, abandoned to their fate on Seoul’s mean streets. The reader senses that the writer has actually witnessed it all firsthand. The quirky, fluid writing style moves the action right along and descriptions are often apt and vivid: “gold leaves lay like a quilt” and “red embers of ash” dangled from a burning cigarette. Later, Tokyo shoppers are observed hurrying along “in short quick steps” and they “obeyed the signals,” something I’ve witnessed there myself.
I’d been eager to read this book because of intersections with my own life, including with Korea, Japan, and international adoption. Indeed, in the early chapters, I became so engrossed, I missed my metro-subway stop. But mid-way, the fast-moving narrative style begins to falter and becomes uneven. Wonderfully credible and emotive dialogue on occasion abruptly shifts into something stilted and flat. And while suggestive plotting that leaves conclusions to the reader’s imagination can be powerful, some loose threads are left hanging. The book’s early promise and authenticity eventually give way to incredible plot twists as the author propels Byung-suk and his side-kick, Miya, a cute Korean-Caucasian girl with a limp, through a series of wish-fulfilling coincidences and a gratuitous trip to Japan, apparently contrived to demonstrate the author’s familiarity with that country.
After my own struggles tutoring Honduran kids in English as a PCV, I can only envy the prowess of the two young orphans, who, without any formal education, learn — not only to read and write, but speak unaccented American English — from a prostitute raised in an orphanage, as well as to read, write, and speak fluent Japanese from an elderly cook who’d acquired it during the occupation. In contrast, other Asians say “belly solly” and “herro,” with their English pronunciation looking like caricatures or odd typos, and too many real typos appear as well.
There are other questions. Would a Korean street woman, after abandoning her illegitimate daughter, end up married to an American colonel? Would unrelated young teens sleep together chastely in the same bed as brother and sister? Not impossible, of course, but highly unlikely, which raises the further question of whether this story is intended as a mere adventure fantasy or a realistic portrayal? The author seems unable to decide. Then, although they’re mixed-race orphans without birth certificates, the lucky protagonists are improbably granted visas to racially purist Japan “quickly and with pleasure,” later obtaining U.S. visas almost as easily. Plane tickets and cash miraculously appear just in time for their epic trip to America, a homeland they’ve never seen. “‘Free,’ said Miya, ‘We’re free’ . . . Their passports might not say it, but they were American. They were going home.” I’m not giving away the ending here, since the cover reveals it right up front.
Byung-suk has already chosen his American name, Joe Winter. And when the kids arrive in New York City, whom do they run into out on the street but Mr. Lim, their long-lost benefactor from the slums of Seoul! As for the title’s “hint of light,” that’s the glow emitted by our hero after reaching the promised land. A happy ending worthy of a Disney movie.
Barbara Joe is the author of Triumph & Hope: Golden Years with the Peace Corps in Honduras, declared Best Peace Corps Memoir of 2009 by Peace Corps Writers. She works as a freelance writer and Spanish interpreter and translator in Washington, DC.
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