‘It’s gone! It’s gone! And I’ve gone too’

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - Books - by Min Kym

The “grief me­moir”, now in vogue, has gone through many per­mu­ta­tions, but this must be the first ex­am­ple of one in which the ob­ject of mourn­ing is ac­tu­ally a vi­olin. In 2010, Min Kym, a Korean vir­tu­oso then in her mid-30s, took her eye off her one-mil­lion-pound Stradi­var­ius at Eus­ton Sta­tion, dis­tracted by her sand­wich, her iPhone, her boyfriend Matt, and a quar­rel about noth­ing much. Pro­fes­sional thieves took the vi­olin with­out her notic­ing. “I stare down, there is the floor and his cello, but it’s gone. We jump up, we look, we stare, we gasp for the sheer shock of it, my heart rac­ing, my head be­wil­dered. Voices are shout­ing. They could be mine, they could be Matt’s, but it’s scream­ing in my head. It’s gone! It’s gone!”

It must have been a hor­ri­ble mo­ment, and at this point a pur­ple patch in the prose is ex­cus­able. But she goes on in a way that is more than pur­ple, and ex­hibits the essential strange­ness of this very strange book: “Some­thing is run­ning out of me, some­thing ter­ri­ble, and there’s a chasm yawn­ing at my feet, with­out limit, and I’m tee­ter­ing on its edge. I want to run back to the time when it was safe, when I was whole. For it’s com­ing on me now that it’s gone! It’s gone! It’s gone! But more than that… I’ve gone too.”

The con­ceit is that, with the loss of her vi­olin, Kym ceased to ex­ist her­self. Gone, the ti­tle of her me­moir, has a dou­ble mean­ing. The ef­fect on Kym was cer­tainly cat­a­strophic in the short term – for weeks at a time, she took to her bed, de­pressed. But she ral­lied around with the help of friends and her boyfriend Matt. (He takes the rap for the loss of the vi­olin and comes across in these pages as slyly ma­nip­u­la­tive, but as the book went on I in­creas­ingly wanted to hear his side of the story.)

After three years, the hunt for the stolen Stradi­var­ius bore fruit. In the mean­time, Kym had claimed the in­sur­ance and bought a new vi­olin – cer­tainly in­fe­rior to the first, but still a fine and valu­able in­stru­ment that many pro­fes­sional vi­o­lin­ists would give their eye teeth for. But to buy back her Stradi­var­ius, she had to pay back the in­sur­ers, and de­spite stren­u­ous ef­forts to raise the funds, she couldn’t. So, by the end of the book, the vi­olin is truly uly gone, for a sec­ond time, and Kym m has to face a life with­out it.

All this would be quite a blow for any­one, but the first half of Gone ex­plains why, for Kym, it was es­pe­cially so. Her early rly child­hood was spent partly in Eng­land, partly in Korea, fol­low­ing in the wake of her fa­ther, an en­gi­neer, in­eer, dis­tant and of­ten ab­sent. Shee took up the vi­olin at an English ish pri­mary school, and im­me­di­ately­ately found that “the vi­olin was not sim­ply for me, it was me”. Within two months, aged six, she e had passed her grade four exam.m. Aged seven, she was ad­mit­ted to the Pur­cell School in Hert­ford­shire, hire, their youngest-ever stu­dent. ent. She had be­come a child prodigy, digy, which gave her a “pe­cu­liar sen­sa­tion of feel­ing com­pletely y nor­mal within your­self, self, but acutely aware that youou are dif­fer­ent”.

When the fam­ily moved back to Korea for a fewew years when Kym was s 11, she found the reg­i­mented,ented, deeply tra­di­tional so­ci­ety alien. After a few vi­olin lessons with­ith a rigid dis­ci­plinar­ian who couldn’t play her­selff and screamed at Kym when­ever hen­ever she made a mis­take, she gave up. “I was re­signed to fad­ing into noth­ing­ness. Soon, I wouldn’t ex­ist at all.”

When she re­turned to Eng­land with her mother and sis­ter, her life as a prodigy re­sumed, its strange mix of priv­i­lege and lone­li­ness now ex­ac­er­bated by the sense that she was nei­ther en­tirely Korean nor en­tirely English. Fear for the fu­ture haunted her, “like a dragon sleep­ing across the mouth of a cave,” she says in a metaphor that is typ­i­cal of the book in be­ing both melo­dra­matic and not quite right. She was drawn to a se­ries of fa­ther fig­ures. To­wards the end, we dis­cover that she be­came anorexic aged 14, at the Pur­cell School. “Ev­ery­one, but ev­ery­one, whether they knew it or not, was on anorexia’s side, not mine.” She only over­came it at 19, when she fell in love with “an un­suit­able youth”, five years older, who “only wanted me to be or­di­nary or­di­nary”. .

In short, GoneGo is as much about cul­tural dis dis­place­ment and the strangenes strange­ness of be­ing a prodigy as it is about l loss. This ought to be rich mater ma­te­rial for a me­moir, but Kym hasn’t th the self-aware­ness to use of it we well. Ev­ery event and small mis mishap is re­counted at max­i­mum i in­ten­sity, in short, breath­less sen sen­tences, of­ten re­peated like an in­can­ta­tion. She con­stantly ref refers to her­self in the third per­son: “Min the Korean doll” or, after the theft, “Min the fast-empty fast-emp­ty­ing one”. And, over and over again, “Min the vi­o­lin­ist”, “Mi “Min the prodigy”. There’s a re re­veal­ing mo­ment when she d de­scribes a visit to Bologn Bologna aged 12 for a com­petit com­pe­ti­tion. She goes for a walk in t the park and picks up a pine cone. That night, she wins the com­pe­ti­tion, pro­pellin pro­pel­ling her­self onto the in­ter­na­tio in­ter­na­tional cir­cuit. Next morn­ing, she no­tices that the pine cone has be­come “more open. Just lik like me”.

Things in K Kym’s world – and, one sus­pects, the peo­ple, too – seem only to ex­ist in re­la­tion to her. M Most sig­nif­i­cant of these th things is, of course, the Stra Stradi­var­ius it­self, which by the end of the book i is no longer hers, but w which she per­sists in thi think­ing has some es­sen essential con­nec­tion to her her. She thinks it ought to be called the “Kym S Stradi­var­ius”, in the tra­di­tion o of nam­ing great vi­o­lins after th their own­ers – for­get­ting that it must have had many own­ers in its life­time. She nur­tures a strange fan­tasy that “when it is played again, out in the open, on stage, in front of an au­di­ence, it will re­mem­ber me. It will open its heart and re­mem­ber me.”

This is the jilted lover, hop­ing the ex will come to his or her senses, and one’s sym­pa­thy for Kym’s loss has to be mixed with a cer­tain ex­as­per­a­tion. Even her re­duced state is one that many mu­si­cians would envy. She has her re­place­ment vi­olin, made by Stradi­var­ius’s teacher, Amati. She has the apart­ment she bought from her earn­ings, a cir­cle of de­voted friends and fam­ily, and her tal­ent. Yet there’s an ob­ses­sive self-pity to her book that is not the in­evitable re­sult of be­ing a prodigy; com­pare Sound­scapes, the re­cent me­moir of the vi­o­lin­ist Paul Robert­son. He suf­fered far worse hard­ships, but man­aged to look on them with wit and de­tach­ment – two qual­i­ties that this air­less, over­heated book sorely needs.

Ivan Hewett on the over-heated me­moir of a child prodigy knocked by the theft of her Stradi­var­ius She no­tices that a pine cone has be­come ‘more ore open. Just likeike me’

‘ Min the vi­o­lin­ist’: as a child prodigy in the 1980s

256PP, VIK­ING, £14.99, EBOOK £9.99

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