Book Review: The Only Child by Mi-Ae Seo

The Only Child by Mi-Ae Seo is an eerie and absorbing novel following a criminal psychologist who has discovered shocking and possibly dangerous connections between a serial killer and her stepdaughter.

Yi Seonkyeong is a young criminal psychologist who’s just wrapping up her first semester of teaching when she receives a curious request. A convicted serial killer named Yi Byeongdo has specifically asked for her to interview him after refusing to talk to scores of other professionals. Seonkyeong is confused, as she has no relation to Byeongdo, family names notwithstanding. While her superiors at the Association of Criminal Psychology are appropriately cautious given this seeming lack of connection, they as well as law enforcement believe that acceding to the request will help elicit information regarding other victims Byeongdo hasn’t yet confessed to killing, despite the evidence found in his possession.

While briefing Seonkyeong, ACP Director Han Dongcheol is even more forthright about how unpredictable and manipulative serial killers can be, warning her:

“We don’t know what may happen under the circumstances, but I trust that you’ll handle it well. Just be careful that no matter what his intentions are, he doesn’t get his way.”

 

He looked at Seonkyeong as if he were looking at a little child by a riverside.

 

There was no telling what was in the river. Or how deep it was, or what kind of danger lurked below the surface. He could only hope that Seonkyeong would swim safely to the destination and return.

 

Suddenly, Seonkyeong felt afraid that she wouldn’t be able to handle the task. But she knew better than anyone that she couldn’t back down.

Just as this strange and important assignment is dumped on her lap, something equally momentous occurs in her personal life: her husband’s daughter unexpectedly comes to stay with them. Originally in the custody of Jaeseong’s ex-wife after a messy divorce, Hayeong was sent to stay with her maternal grandparents after her unstable mother committed suicide. Now Hayeong has lost her primary caregivers once more after a fire destroys her home and takes her grandparents with it.

At first, Seonkyeong doesn’t know what to do with the 11-year-old girl. Hayeong is, by turns, angry and withdrawn, and everything Seonkyeong does seems to be wrong in her eyes. It doesn’t help that Jaeseong is not the best father. After being apart from his daughter for three years, he doesn’t seem to know how to deal with her either and is happy to leave her entirely to Seonkyeong to handle. As Seonkyeong struggles to make sense of her stepdaughter’s coldness and sudden outbursts of violence, she begins to find disturbing similarities between Hayeong and Byeongdo, especially when the latter tells her stories of the childhood abuse he endured at his mother’s hands.

I would resolve in my heart not to be deceived by [my mother] again, but would fail every time. When it became possible for me to outrun her, she shouted, cursing at me. But no curse could catch me.

 

But you know something?

 

Words can leave a deeper, more terrible wound than a slap on the cheek. Angry that she couldn’t catch me, she would shout like crazy. Even if I covered up my ears, the words burrowed inside me. Those words wounded me, and the wounds festered inside. I became full of dirty blood, pus, and polluted words and thoughts.

From what little Jaeseong will tell her, Seonkyeong knows that Hayeong’s mother, like Byeongdo’s, wasn’t well. But surely the loving guidance of a trained psychologist will help the little girl overcome whatever trauma might be turning her into a psychopath. It can’t already be too late to save Hayeong from becoming a monster—can it?

The Only Child is the kind of page-turning thriller that made me hug my children tighter and swear to be the best mom I could possibly be for them. There are so many twists that it’s hard to discuss them without inadvertently giving away major plot points, but I will say that Seonkyeong is a heroine who’s really easy to root for. Reserved but intelligent, she approaches the tasks laid out for her with determination and a willingness to listen and learn. Her relationship with Hayeong is so tender and believable that it makes the last, almost painfully suspenseful pages of the book feel especially tragic.

I also have to note how much I enjoyed how Mi-Ae Seo made a point of showing that knowing something intellectually doesn’t make translating that knowledge into practical action any easier. While Seonkyeong’s training as a criminal psychologist saves her from making the stupid blunders that often plague the heroines of psychological thrillers, it doesn’t make parenting a preteen any easier, with or without a convicted serial killer lurking in the background.

The Only Child is a moving, entertaining novel and a terrific English-language debut, as translated from the original Korean by Jung Yewon. I very much hope this is the first of many of Ms. Seo’s books to be made available in English for a wider audience to enjoy.

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