A lit­er­ary Ru­bik’s cube

The Boy Who Es­caped Par­adise takes the reader on a jour­ney through decades, six coun­tries

Toronto Star - - BOOKS - TREVOR CORKUM SPE­CIAL TO THE STAR

What do we make of a young am­ne­siac found at the scene of a grisly mur­der in a down­scale New York apart­ment?

The FBI — find­ing a fist­ful of fake pass­ports and not­ing a pat­tern of mys­te­ri­ous sym­bols writ­ten in blood on the wall — as­sume the young man a spy. Pos­si­bly crazy. J.M. Lee’s lat­est global thriller, The Boy Who Es­caped Par­adise, is a lit­er­ary Ru­bik’s cube that fol­lows the enig­matic and em­i­nently like­able Gilmo across six coun­tries over sev­eral decades.

There is an un­con­ven­tional child­hood at an elite aca­demic school in sti­fling Py­ongyang and the harsh re­al­i­ties of a North Korean prison camp.

Then a high-fly­ing gang­land un­der­world of cos­mopoli­tan Shang­hai, fol­lowed by the fran­tic casi­nos of Ma­cau.

Through it all, we jour­ney along­side Gilmo in his quest to find his long-lost friend, the haunt­ingly beau­ti­ful Yeong-ae.

Along that jour­ney, we’re con­fronted again and again with a frus­trat­ing rid­dle: who is the real Gilmo? An autis­tic ge­nius? A shape-shift­ing swindler? A sim­ple-hearted fool? This last de­scrip­tion seems at times the most apt, as he re­peat­edly per­mits Yeong-ae — now a high-end es­cort, now a karaoke singer, now a sav­age drug run­ner — to swin­dle and abuse him.

De­spite his ge­nius for num­bers, cal­cu­la­tions and pat­terns of all sorts — gifts which earn him un­told sums in gam­bling and stock trad­ing — Gilmo is one of the most gullible and eas­ily ma­nip­u­lated he­roes to grace the page in years.

The chrono­log­i­cal, episodic struc­ture of the novel works to Lee’s strength — chiefly, his abil­ity to of­fer up richly re­ward­ing tableaus of daily life in North Korea, Shang­hai and Seoul.

The soon pre­dictable abil­ity of Gilmo (as well as Yeong-ae) to es­cape from all man­ner of cap­ture just in the nick of time, how­ever, re­sults in a novel that limps, near the end of the tale, to­ward its

De­spite his ge­nius for pat­terns of all sorts, Gilmo is one of the most gullible he­roes to grace the page in years

an­ti­cli­mac­tic fi­nale.

Un­der­cover FBI agent An­gela Stowe — in­ter­ro­gat­ing Gilmo as he spins his un­likely tale — falls flat as an overly con­ve­nient plot de­vice.

Nev­er­the­less, Lee’s lu­cid prose — im­pec­ca­bly trans­lated by Man Asian Lit­er­ary Prize win­ner Chi-Young Kim — and the au­thor’s eye for vis­ceral, telling de­tail make this novel a page-turner. Trevor Corkum’s novel The Elec­tric Boy is forth­com­ing with Dou­ble­day Canada.

PHOTO IL­LUS­TRA­TION BRIAN HUGHES

J.M. Lee’s global thriller is a page-turner.

The Boy Who Es­caped Par­adise, by J.M. Lee, Pe­ga­sus Books, 336 pages, $33.95.

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