A literary Rubik’s cube
The Boy Who Escaped Paradise takes the reader on a journey through decades, six countries
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
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.
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.