The Silence of Bones by June Hur
Words By Suzie Bartholomew
Published April 21, 2020 by Feiwel and Friends
As a lover of murder mysteries, The Silence of Bones by June Hur immediately captured my attention simply by existing in a space that hasn’t been utilized before—that space being Korea in the year 1800. Seol is an indentured servant of the police bureau, assisting a highly respected young inspector with a case steeped in political intrigue. A noblewoman has been murdered, her nose cut off and throat slit. As Seol works with the inspector, they form an unlikely friendship, one that is tested as the evidence begins to point towards the inspector being the killer. Seol is determined to find the truth and might be the only one able to. The Silence of Bones not only weaves together a mystery filled with history, mistaken identities, and political drama, it discusses how familial bonds can affect us in a myriad of ways.
I particularly admired June Hur’s ability to seamlessly weave history and mystery together, thereby building a world that not only became the framework for the plot, but was crucial for the plot to even exist. There have been historical mysteries before, but they always seemed to be set in the Western world (Victorian England comes to mind most readily) and were always based on Western ideals. The Silence of Bones provides a breath of fresh air by transporting us to Joseon (Korea) in the nineteenth century, a time where Confucian beliefs ruled the classes and Catholics were deemed heretics and sentenced to death. Each character is defined not just by their actions or their voice, but by their standing in the world. To understand a character’s motivations (or to try and figure out who the killer is), the reader must take their social standing—and, therefore, how that character views other individuals—into consideration.
The plot itself constantly changes between high and low moments, catapulting you through a narrative that utilizes relationships as a means of finding the killer. As we move from suspect to suspect, Seol and Inspector Han focus on family, servants, and lovers, all of whom lead one down a winding tunnel of deception. Each possible scenario seems far more plausible than the last, making the reader question whether Seol will find the true criminal in time. We ride along with Seol, feeling the same need to seek out the truth, even hesitating when the evidence goes in a direction that wasn’t expected. Seol’s personal search for her brother’s grave is intertwined throughout, weaving together themes of family and duty.
Another strength of the novel is having more than one strong female character, even though the story set during a time when women were supposed to be unseen. Seol’s character growth propels the reader through the story, especially as she tackles her own personal concerns rather than simply doing what others expect of her. Through her own efforts, she gains the respect of those in the Police Bureau, pushing back against the rigid social structure of the time, but without breaking it completely. Seol makes her own space in the world in spite of her past and the prejudices against her. We are also given the real-life characters of Queen Regent Jeongsung and Lady Kang, women who defied their gender roles during the Joseon Period. They both help to frame the historical narrative, showing the divide between political party affiliations. While the story is Seol’s, her narrative wouldn’t have played out as it did without the actions of these two women.
The Silence of Bones is a mystery steeped in history that will keep you intrigued from start to finish. While it doesn’t feel fast-paced, it is by no means a leisurely read. Each scene leads into the next with such ease, holding your attention and immersing you in a world where women and men led lives that were divided, with warring political factions using religion as a means of gaining power. June Hur has an amazing ability to connect readers with another time and culture, so with this as her debut novel, it will be interesting to see what else she gives us in the future.