by Marie Myung-Ok Lee
Young Adult Fiction
Hurt You is narrated by Korean-American teenager Georgia Kim. Her older brother Leo is neurodivergent, which sometimes causes seizures, socially inappropriate behavior, and violent meltdowns. The family has moved from the city to suburban Sunnyvale for a school district that supposedly has a great program for special needs students. The family now has their own house and lots of room, but Georgia aches for the true sense of community she felt in their urban apartment. Georgia is thrust into being a minority and having to be a fierce defender of her brother in an environment that is less than friendly. The school bully Curley and his girlfriend mock Leo’s behavior and seem to think it is cute to provoke him, especially with his fear of dogs. Complaints that Georgia makes against Curley are twisted and she is made to look like the troublemaker. (Curley’s wealthy white family owns most of the town, including the “Korean-town” area which has become an enclave for immigrants.) Thus emerges one of the key themes of the novel: what it means to be in power, and what it means to be in a position of powerlessness.
Georgia finds camaraderie among a group of Korean students and the high school’s sole black student. The group even welcomes Leo to hagwon, their Korean study hangout. The most beautiful part of the novel is how, among this class of students who are not socially privileged, a true sense of community and helping one another arises. Georgia falls for the gorgeous Zeus, who stands out for not only his deep compassion for others but his lack of high professional aspirations. Instead, he loves to work with his hands. He finds a way to use Leo’s love for crafts and “repping” to help him make wallets out of waste Mylar material from his uncle’s business (which is also helping to “save the earth”). Just when Georgia thinks she has found someone to help care for Leo and maybe, just maybe, can start thinking about her own future and going to college, a shocking act of violence occurs. The hagwon group encounters Curley and his girlfriend at the local department store. The girlfriend has brought her small dog into the store in a bag (which is against store rules). The dog gets out and startles Leo, which causes him to react violently. Curley pulls out a gun and shoots Leo through the back and kills him. Bullets graze Georgia’s temple and shatter the bones in one of Zeus’s shins, leaving him with a severe disability. News articles at the end suggest that Curley never faces consequences. Instead, he receives an award from the NRA for “standing his ground.” Leo is painted as the culprit and the shooting as an act of self-defense. At this point, the novel abruptly ends.
The ending feels like a bucket of paint suddenly thrown on what has been a skillfully painted masterpiece. Hurt You has been described as a modern Of Mice and Men, and the parallels are obvious. However, I wish the retelling could have been less literal, and there could have been a more hopeful ending. At the very least, I wish there could have been an additional chapter or two of follow-up. How does Georgia deal with the loss of her brother, who had been so much a part of her identity? Do the members of hagwon eventually heal from the grief? Does Zeus overcome his severe injury? There are so many things left unknown.
The disappointing ending aside, Hurt You is definitely worth your time. Your compassion will be deepened for neurodivergent individuals and for those that love them. You will learn much about Korean culture. Finally, your heart will expand for those who are victim to labels and who belong to a social class not in power.
Reviewed by Bryan Latimer