Brooklyn author’s debut novel explores war, forbidden love and motherhood

Author Crystal Hana Kim Photo by Nina Subin

Crystal Hana Kim’s debut “If You Leave Me” is a sweeping tale of war, family, motherhood and forbidden love — the unforgettable saga of three intertwined lovers in Korea and the impossible choices they’re forced to make in the years following the civil war that still haunts us today.

When the communist-backed army from the north invades her home, 16-year-old Haemi Lee is forced to flee to a refugee camp along with her widowed mother and sickly younger brother. The family is in constant survival mode, but for a few hours each night, Haemi sneaks into a neighboring village to go bar hopping with her childhood best friend, Kyunghwan — together they drink, laugh and escape the sorrows of war.

Kyunghwan and Haemi have often flirted with romance, but Kyunghwan is so focused on finishing school he doesn’t realize that his older, wealthier cousin, Jisoo, also has his sights on Haemi. Jisoo is determined to marry the beautiful, spirited girl before joining the fight.

Ultimately, Haemi concedes to the wishes of her mother and accepts Jisoo’s proposal, opting for the security of her family over her first love. But soon, as Haemi settles uneasily into marriage and motherhood, it becomes clear that her decision will have profound ripple effects on her and her loved ones for generations to come.

In the tradition of Lisa Ko’s “The Leavers” and Min Jin Lee’s “Pachinko,” “If You Leave Me” is at once timely and timeless. Kim’s characters are relatable and utterly alive — Haemi struggles to juggle duty and the traditions of the past, while learning what it means to be a woman in a new and modern Korea.

“If You Leave Me” is a stunning portrait of war and refugee life, a passionate romance and a heartrending exploration of a woman’s longing for autonomy in a rapidly changing world.

Hana Kim holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University and an MS in Education from Hunter College. She has received numerous awards, including PEN America’s Story Prize for Emerging Writers, along with fellowships and support from the Bread Loaf’s Writers Conference and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.

She is currently a writing instructor for Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America and a contributing editor at Apogee Journal. Born and raised in New York, she currently lives in Brooklyn. This is her first novel.

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