Reviewed by Harriet
For some reason I’ve always been fascinated by child prodigies – people who seem to have been born with an innate talent for something, which very often seems to be music. Min Kym, born in South Korea, brought up in London, discovered hers when she was about five. Interestingly, her choice of instrument was almost made for her. After her mother suggested she should have music lessons, there were only two slots available at the music class, trumpet and violin. She didn’t fancy the trumpet, but when she picked up her first, tiny, violin, ‘I knew right away that holding a violin, playing a violin, wasn’t simply for me, it was me’. The speed at which she picked up the technique was staggering – within just three months she had reached Grade Four, which would normally take several years. And she loved it.
By the time she was seven, Min had been recognised as a child prodigy. This is something which carries a burden – peoples’ expectations, a sense of responsibility, and the loneliness of feeling that, because of your unique abilities, you are somehow different, not normal: ‘I felt like an alien’. But through it all shines the sense of rightness, of doing the only thing it seems possible to do, and deriving huge joy from it.
Over the coming years Min learns, and develops, finds new and better teachers. She starts to give concerts, goes on tours, wins competitions. At fifteen she briefly rebels against the intense pressure, decides to give it all up, but finds she simply can’t. By her early twenties, she is accustomed to the demanding schedules of performing and learning. And at some point she is offered, and accepts, the possibility of buying a Stradivarius violin. In fact she’s offered two, and tries them both out. When she tries the second one,
It felt as if three hundred years ago Stradivarius had held his hands over a length of wood and fashioned this violin just for me, that all her life, my Strad had been waiting for me as I had been waiting for her. There was no question, no doubt. It was love at first sight, love and everything else: honour, obedience, trust, everything.
Yes, it sounds like a marriage, and in fact for Min, just twenty-one, that’s just how it felt – ‘till death do us part’. And for ten years, that’s what it certainly was. And then one day, travelling home through London from a concert in Sussex, feeling unwell, she allows her unreliable boyfriend to keep the violin with the rest of their luggage while they sit in a Pret a Manger café. They are right beside it, but the thieves are clever. One minute it’s there, the next it’s gone. Gone. I hardly need to tell you the panic that ensues, the difficulty of getting the police to understand the severity of what has happened. Yes, the violin is worth a million pounds. But that’s not the point. For Min, her whole world has collapsed.
Somehow, through the intensely painful weeks, months, years that follow, Min gets her life more or less back on track. She gets insurance money, and buys a replacement violin, though she never manages to bond with it. And after several years, the violin is found. Evidently the thieves were overwhelmed by its value and importance, and had not found a way of disposing of it. So is this a happy ending? Sadly not. For Min cannot keep her beloved Strad. The insurance company insist it must be sold so they can get their money back. She doesn’t want to sell, secretly prays that a miracle will occur so she can get it back, but no, after much wheeling and dealing, it is out of her life for good. And in the end, she will acquire another important violin, and hope will come back into her life.
It’s an extraordinary story, and one that had me eagerly reading the book with huge interest and pleasure. But it’s also one with an interesting subtext. For Min fully realises that she must take some responsibility for the tragedies that have had such a profound effect on her life. It is something in her own character that allowed these things to happen. She sees that her subservience to the controlling Matt made her weakly acquiesce when he insisted on keeping the violin next to him instead of holding onto it herself. And this same inability to insist strongly on what she knows to be right has contributed to the mess surrounding the sale and her initial purchase of a less than satisfactory replacement – she listened to the wrong people, controlling men again: ‘I had devils in my ear’. A good deal of this must be attributed to her upbringing, which was very traditionally Korean – this is a culture which teaches that children should be subservient to older people and that women are inferior to men. But then again, she’s a woman, and even Western women sometimes feel like that.
Beautifully written and thought provoking, this is highly recommended. You don’t have to know anything about classical music to respond to the emotional punch of the story. But if you get curious about Min’s playing, a CD is being issued to coincide with publication, so you can listen as you read.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Min Kym, Gone: A Girl, a Violin, and a Life Unstrung (Viking, 2017). 978-0241263150, 256pp., hardback.
BUY Gone from the Book Depository.