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.
I truly had high hopes for this debut novel from author, June Hur, given its subject material, late 18th to early 19th century Korea, in a period of scandal and turmoil. Catholic priests were risking life and limb to infiltrate Korea and spread the word of the One God. And while Hur uses this as the backdrop to her novel, I felt she missed the mark.
The Silence of Bones could have been so much more than just a murder-mystery. All the right ingredients were there. A mysterious priest converting Koreans to Catholicism, a high born lady dressing as a man and smuggling forbidden books into the capital city, and an Inspector at the police bureau seeking revenge for the death of his parents, and redemption from his family’s shame.
Except, we are given Seol’s story. Here is a young woman (16) sold into indentured slavery from one master to the police bureau in the capital, who becomes a ‘Damo’. A woman who has to be present for the sake of decency when an officer of the law is interviewing, searching, or talking to a female suspect.
Seol isn’t too happy to find herself in her current situation, torn from what little family she had left, and burdened with a promise to search from her dead older brother’s grave, for her older sister. This is essentially the backbone of the story, as she helps the venerable Inspector Han discover who the murderer is, while figuring out her place in this new world she finds herself in.
All this makes for a somewhat intriguing mystery, but without any real depth and lacking any true emotion. I felt indifferent to the characters and the story as it unfolded, and couldn’t quite put my finger on why. Mostly it came down to the fact I was being told a story, rather than “immersed” in said story. I never got a real sense of place, nor of the characters themselves. We didn’t get to feel the sights and sounds, nor connect with any emotion on a substantive level.
Even the main character, of Seol, was want to wander off at tangents, as the author gave us mini info dumps in the middle of something the character was doing, or saying. That said, there were still a few interesting moments but never enough to make up for the disjointed feel to the narrative as a whole.
This was, for the most part, just an okay read. Not great, but then again, not awful either.