The opening sequence of Min Kym’s memoir reads like that of a television drama. It begins with the main action, the reason we’re here in the first place: to read about the former child prodigy violinist’s ordeal when her beloved instrument was stolen from under her feet. It is a smart move for a memoir, and the action, staged as a dream – or rather, a nightmare – reads well. Immediately we are introduced to what will become a regular feature of the book: the personification of Kym’s Stradivarius. “No one comes to tell me whether my violin is alive or whether my violin is dead.” If this is an attempt to emotionally involve this reader, it has worked.
Gone: A Girl, A Violin, A Life Unstrung is, for the most part, a memoir of a lifetime (albeit a short lifetime; Kym is just 31) in music, and the first half of our story is indeed that, a relatively succinct biography. Born in Korea and brought up in London along with her older sister (now a successful pianist), Kym describes a strict upbringing rooted in Korean values. She began violin lessons at a young age (no piano, like her sister, due to the unavailability of the teacher’s timetable) and playing came naturally to her, allowing her to sail through grades on her school instrument and become quickly familiar with various composers and their works.
Kym reveals her feelings of being an outsider in her school community. Music helped her feel alive: “My violin was not simply my voice, my reason, but my savior too.” By the age of eight and a half, Kym was an award-winning child prodigy, describing her world touring public performances as “a crescendo of expectations.” She speaks of obeying the rules, rules at home, rules from violin teachers, and later controlling tutors and boyfriends, and these momentary retellings of events are leading us ever closer to the key act in her opera. Eventually Kym obtained the object of this memoir, a 17th century Stradivarius. Her vivid description of the violin, its history, its appearance and voice, as well as an intricate description of its strings, demonstrates her deep affection for the instrument and how much it means to her. Practice takes over her life, her childhood is “Gone”, in a clever link to the title. Perhaps, you begin to think when reading this chapter, this is the “Gone” Kym means, and not merely the loss of her violin. But perhaps not, as she dwells very little on her childhood friendships, or lack of them.
One relationship we learn about is that with her boyfriend, Matt, witness – and indeed pivotal – to the theft of the Stradivarius. Kym goes into great detail when describing the theft, every small detail is mentioned and events happen in slow motion, like they are imprinted in her brain. The couple were having lunch when they became victims of a chance theft, and then: “it’s Gone. It’s Gone. But more than that…I’ve Gone too.” Kym’s devastation is evident it the simplicity of the statement, with capitalization highlighting its significance. Kym wonders of the thieves making their discovery: “Did it glow for them like it glows for me?”
There follows the aftermath of the theft, including Kym’s depression which she describes as “a demon pressing down”, although there is gentle humour, too, when Kym is appointed a police liaison officer as “we don’t have a stolen Stradivarius officer.” Although the thieves were eventually caught, with one receiving a jail sentence, Kym feels that it is she who is a prisoner without her violin, and the second half of Gone is the story of how she gently rebuilt her shattered life. It is clear that Kym is deeply passionate about music, and her instrument, and the bond she formed with her Stradivarius is drawn in heartbreaking detail, though such love may be difficult for less musically-inclined readers to empathise with.
Gone is a book of substance over style – Kym is a musician, not a writer, but her story is compelling. It is honest; her raw emotions are laid bare, and it is that aspect which gives the book its strength. Kym was eventually reunited with her violin, and reflecting on the three years without it she proclaims that “they’re Gone.” And, with that, we have gone full circle with Kym and her Stradivarius, and now it is time to leave them.
(Kym has released an album which accompanies the book, and the iTunes preview facility proves that she plays beautifully. The music is a nice added touch, and worth a listen.)
Gone: a Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung came out in paperback via Penguin Books on 5th April 2018.