Novel Review: Giacomo Lee’s ‘Funereal’
There is an urgent need for active conversation about the prevalence of suicide in South Korea. The novel, as an incubator for cultural change and new ideas, is often capable of generating dialogue when other forms of communication are stifled by fear, pride, and social customs. For those of us who are unsure of how to talk about suicide in Korea, Funereal, the new novel by Giacomo Lee, is one place we might begin.
Soobin Shin is a young woman struggling both to make ends meet and to find any joy in her life. But when Soobin takes an unexpected job with OneLife Korea hosting make-believe funeral ceremonies so that her clients can experience the ritual of their own deaths, her own outlook on life is changed forever.
Throughout the novel, Soobin Shin deals first-hand with many of the issues that plague modern Korea, such as the impossible perfection of idols, escapism as a means of survival, and an over-reliance on quick fixes to solve long-term problems. One of the most pointed moments in the novel comes from high-power executive and OneLife Korea client, Geonwon Kang, who notes of Koreans’ outlook on depression that, “if we can’t see it, then officially nothing’s happening.”
The majority of Funereal centers around Soobin’s employment with OneLife Korea and her experiences of “help[ing] the suicidal confront death and realize it’s not what they want.” Although a company that puts on fake funerals sounds like a surreal and completely fictional enterprise, Giacomo Lee notes in an article on Medium that the inspiration for his novel came from South Korea’s very real Coffin Academy, a last rites service designed to make people appreciate their lives. What’s more interesting from that article, however, is Lee’s self-effacing fear that writing about suicide might create more problems than it solves. “I wondered if my novel was utterly irresponsible” Lee writes, before eventually coming to Funereal’s defense. And he’s right to defend it. As he notes, Funereal does not describe any suicide in detail. He’s careful not to valorize it in any way. For Lee, a novel about suicide must strike a balance between honest dialogue and doing no harm.
As the first Western writer attempting to cover modern day South Korea in the English language, Giacomo Lee does a laudable job presenting these issues in an honest, but careful, way. Funereal matches an engaging story with real and genuine conversation about suicide in a way that is not often accomplished. One novel cannot, by itself, change the dangerously high rate of suicide in South Korea, but it’s an excellent start. Because as Joe Han, founder of OneLife Korea notes, “Too many people are dying in this country.”
You can buy a copy of Funereal, here.