The main representatives of the three generations Yom Sang-seop’s novel centres around are the head of the Jo family, the dying grandfather, his son Sang-hun, and Sang-hun’s son Deok-gi. Set during the Japanese occupation of Korea between the World Wars, it is a family saga, the focal transition being between generations as the grandfather’s strong hold on the family fades with his illness and is then followed by the struggle for the inheritance when he dies.
Deok-gi is a student in Japan — or tries to be one, as the pressing family business tends to keep him in Seoul. He is to be his grandfather’s heir and take over the family, as his own father has proven not to be entirely trustworthy and, having embraced Christianity, has turned away from tradition (unwilling, for example, to participate in some of the family rituals). Sang-hun is a somewhat dissolute figure, and among his less honourable deeds was an affair with young Gyeong-ae. He pretty much abandoned her when she became pregnant, and when Deok-gi — a former schoolmate of Gyeong-ae’s — runs into her at the beginning of the novel the child is already five.
Another significant figure is Deok-gi’s friend, Byeong-hwa. Also the son of a Christian, he broke with his father, refusing to even pretend to be an obedient son and do vaguely as his father wants. With no one to pay for his studies, he is down on his luck, and is active in a radical movement.
Byeong-hwa lives with the family of Pil-sun, a young woman Deok-gi is attracted to (and wants to be of help to), while Byeong-hwa is drawn to Gyeong-ae — who, in turn, still wonders whether she can’t get Sang-hun to at least assume some responsibility for his daughter.
Aside from this, there are quite a few hangers-on at the grandfathers house, including the manipulative concubine, the Suwon woman, trying to position herself to be able to cash in on his death. The household is an often unpleasant place of mutual suspicion and personal strife, most everyone looking out almost only for themselves. The grandfather, trying to hold on to tradition, is slipping away too fast to still have much influence, while the heir, Deok-gi, tries to balance everything — a daunting task and a responsibility he isn’t all that enthusiastic about assuming. Undermined by his father and others, Deok-gi doesn’t have it easy (and throughout would prefer just to be able to get on with his studies in Japan).
Byeong-hwa’s (and the family of Pil-sun’s) revolutionary activities are never really spelt out, and only in an attempt to embrace what looks like a more comfortable but very bourgeois existence does it come to a violent confrontation with the (very unimpressive) revolutionaries. While Byeong-hwa eventually explains that his foray into capitalism is meant to provide a safety net for the comrades and the movement, he is clearly also torn between complete devotion to the cause and a simpler, more traditional lifestyle.
Meanwhile, Deok-gi is concerned that his feelings for Pil-sun will lead him to become no better than his father. Already married, and with a small child, taking up with with Pil-sun would seem too much like he was following in his father’s footsteps (who at first also only meant to help Gyeong-ae and her family through hard times).
The novel covers a fairly brief period of time, but one of considerable transition: family heads die, younger generations take a lead in providing for family. Meanwhile, the political situation mirrors the confrontation between generations, the rigid state (foreign-dominated as it also is, by the Japanese) being challenged — largely ineffectively — by several of the characters.
The most impressive aspect of the novel is the characters, nicely and gradually built up through conversation and their actions. The free-spirited and independent Gyeong-ae, the softer Pil-sun, and the stunningly self-centred Sang-hun are among the vivid figures Yom presents.
There’s a great deal of dialogue in the book, much of it in the form of playful banter and teasing, even about serious subjects. Expectations and traditional ways do not permit for clear communication: it’s rare that a character will actually say what is on his or her mind, helping muddle matters much more — and making for some frustration for the reader.
The police state intrudes more decisively in the novel’s climax, but Yom leaves much unresolved — an anticlimactic wind-up that is a bit disappointing. Nevertheless, Three Generations is an impressive and evocative account of Seoul life in the 1920s (or early 1930s), with a solid cast of engaging characters. Somewhat rough around the edges — the individual scenes are handled much better than the overarching story — it is still well worthwhile, an enjoyable and quite fast-moving big read.