Walker's Bookshelf

Starred Review: Diary of a Murderer

Kim Young-ha is an acclaimed writer in Korea. His works have been translated into English and other languages. Diary of a Murderer is a collection of four short stories ranging from suspenseful thrillers to ruminative explorations of human nature.

The book opens with a thrilling titular story about a seventy-year old man, Kim Byeongsu, who is a former serial killer suffering from a severe case of Alzheimer’s disease. Kim Byeongsu has not killed in a while, and when he meets his adopted daughter’s new boyfriend, he knows exactly what he is—a fellow serial killer. Battling with short-term memory loss, he makes it his mission to protect his adopted daughter and to kill one last time. “Diary of a Murderer” portrays a person who is slowly losing control of his faculties. Written in short snippets that resembles diary entries, one can get a sense of the paranoia, claustrophobia, obsession, and neurosis that is gradually seeping into the protagonist’s psyche.

It is evident that Kim has a knack for creating captivating and flawed characters. He enthralls by letting his readers into the troubled mind of his characters. For instance, in the second story, “The Origin of Life,” Kim interweaves unrequited love and abusive relationship with human’s need to survive. When the romantic protagonist, Seojin, comes back to his hometown, he begins to wonder the origins of life and gets involve with his childhood friend, Ina, who is married to an abusive husband. Then, in the third story, “Missing Child”, Kim explores how environment can mold a person’s identity by delving into parenting. The story chronicles the tragic journey of a married couple, Yunseok and Mira, whose child was kidnapped while they were in a supermarket. Ten years later, they discovered that their child was alive, living under a different name, and was raised by another woman who had committed suicide. Together, these two stories and the struggles of each characters add pathos to a book filled with visceral fervor, creating a riveting page-turner.

To make Diary of a Murderer more compelling than it already is, Kim crafts a final story where the search for passion and inspiration takes on metaphysical concepts. “Once there was a man in a mental hospital convinced that he was a cob of corn” is how “The Writer” begins. Kim subtly pokes fun at the relationship between the writer and the publisher as well as the writer and his works. At one point, the titular character, “the writer,” receives an advice from an old friend to “write an unintelligible, chaotic book that’s unpublishable. Write something like James Joyce’s Ulysses”. “The Writer” questions what makes a writer a great one. The story ends with characters transforming into “two enormous chickens” and the protagonist repeatedly saying, “I’m not a cob of corn.” “The Writer” is a well-told mind-bending narrative with searing black humor and uncanny surrealism.

Kim Young-ha’s Diary of a Murderer is unconventional, original, and refreshing. It taps into the intrinsic instinct of human nature, and it depicts a distorted reality where serial killers are lovable fathers, where love stories become survival stories, and where obsession and passion don’t have a definitive distinction. Diary of a Murderer is only 200 pages long with the titular story taking half of the book; and yet, each story feels as though it could have been turned into a standalone novel.

More collection of short stories…

Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez

In these wildly imaginative, devilishly daring tales of the macabre, internationally bestselling author Mariana Enriquez brings contemporary Argentina to vibrant life as a place where shocking inequality, violence, and corruption are the law of the land, while military dictatorship and legions of desaparecidos loom large in the collective memory. In these stories, reminiscent of Shirley Jackson and Julio Cortázar, three young friends distract themselves with drugs and pain in the midst a government-enforced blackout; a girl with nothing to lose steps into an abandoned house and never comes back out; to protest a viral form of domestic violence, a group of women set themselves on fire.

But alongside the black magic and disturbing disappearances, these stories are fueled by compassion for the frightened and the lost, ultimately bringing these characters—mothers and daughters, husbands and wives—into a surprisingly familiar reality. Written in hypnotic prose that gives grace to the grotesque, Things We Lost in the Fire is a powerful exploration of what happens when our darkest desires are left to roam unchecked, and signals the arrival of an astonishing and necessary voice in contemporary fiction.

Florida by Lauren Groff

In her thrilling new book, Lauren Groff brings the reader into a physical world that is at once domestic and wild—a place where the hazards of the natural world lie waiting to pounce, yet the greatest threats and mysteries are still of an emotional, psychological nature. A family retreat can be derailed by a prowling panther, or by a sexual secret. Among those navigating this place are a resourceful pair of abandoned sisters; a lonely boy, grown up; a restless, childless couple, a searching, homeless woman; and an unforgettable, recurring character—a steely and conflicted wife and mother. 

The stories in this collection span characters, towns, decades, even centuries, but Florida—its landscape, climate, history, and state of mind—becomes its gravitational center: an energy, a mood, as much as a place of residence. Groff transports the reader, then jolts us alert with a crackle of wit, a wave of sadness, a flash of cruelty, as she writes about loneliness, rage, family, and the passage of time. With shocking accuracy and effect, she pinpoints the moments and decisions and connections behind human pleasure and pain, hope and despair, love and fury—the moments that make us alive. Startling, precise, and affecting, Florida is a magnificent achievement.

Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyan

From the start of this extraordinary debut, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s writing will grab you, haunt you, enrage and invigorate you. By placing ordinary characters in extraordinary situations, Adjei-Brenyah reveals the violence, injustice, and painful absurdities that black men and women contend with every day in this country.

These stories tackle urgent instances of racism and cultural unrest, and explore the many ways we fight for humanity in an unforgiving world. In “The Finkelstein Five,” Adjei-Brenyah gives us an unforgettable reckoning of the brutal prejudice of our justice system. In “Zimmer Land,” we see a far-too-easy-to-believe imagining of racism as sport. And “Friday Black” and “How to Sell a Jacket as Told by Ice King” show the horrors of consumerism and the toll it takes on us all.

Entirely fresh in its style and perspective, and sure to appeal to fans of Colson Whitehead, Marlon James, and George Saunders, Friday Black confronts readers with a complicated, insistent, wrenching chorus of emotions, the final note of which, remarkably, is hope.

Bring Out the Dog Stories by Will Mackin

The eleven stories in Will Mackin’s mesmerizing debut collection draw from his many deployments with a special operations task force in Iraq and Afghanistan. They began as notes he jotted on the inside of his forearm in grease pencil and, later, as bullet points on the torn-off flap of an MRE kit. Whenever possible he incorporated those notes into his journals. Years later, he used those journals to write this book.

Together, the stories in Bring Out the Dog offer a remarkable portrait of the absurdity and poetry that define life in the most elite, clandestine circles of modern warfare. It is a world of intense bonds, ancient credos, and surprising compassion—of success, failure, and their elusive definitions. Moving between settings at home and abroad, in vivid language that reflects the wonder and discontent of war, Mackin draws the reader into a series of surreal, unsettling, and deeply human episodes: In “Crossing the River No Name,” a close call suggests that miracles do exist, even if they are in brutally short supply; in “Great Circle Route Westward Through Perpetual Night,” the death of the team’s beloved dog plunges them into a different kind of grief; in “Kattekoppen,” a man struggles to reconcile his commitments as a father and his commitments as a soldier; and in “Baker’s Strong Point,” a man whose job it is to pull things together struggles with a loss of control.

Told without a trace of false bravado and with a keen, Barry Hannah–like sense of the absurd, Bring Out the Dog manages to capture the tragedy and heroism, the degradation and exultation, in the smallest details of war.