Review: "The Only Child" by Mi-ae Seo has many flaws

"The Only Child: a Novel," Ecco, by Mi-ae Seo, translated from the Korean by Yewon Jung

In "The Only Child," Korean author Mi-ae Seo delivers a sometimes frightening psychological thriller with echoes of "The Silence of the Lambs" and "The Bad Seed." But the characters are only explored on the surface, the plot doesn’t break new ground and never reaches deep into the creepiness factor.

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In the story, forensic psychologist Yi Seonkyeong is teaching criminal psychology to college students in Seoul when she receives an unusual request that could propel her career. Condemned serial killer Yi Byeongdo has agreed to talk to her with no limits on their conversation. Seonkyeong has no idea why the killer, who has refused previous interviews with more famous psychologists, has reached out to her.

She’s only begun the interviews when she's distracted by developments in her personal life. Her new husband wants his 11-year-old daughter Hayeong, to live with them. Hayeong, whose mother committed suicide a few years, has been living with her grandparents, who die in a house fire.

Seonkyeong is increasingly disturbed by the girl’s sullen attitude marked by occasional violent outbursts. She begins to see parallels between the girl and Yi Byeongdo. Both were horribly abused as children and neither seems to have empathy for others. The old debate of nature or nurture preys on Seonkyeong’s mind.

Seonkyeong has been nicknamed Clarice for the "Silence of the Lambs" character, but the plot relies too much on this trope and moves on a predictable path. Seonkyeong wonders if Hayeong is a bad seed or if she can work to change the child’s personality.

"The Only Child" benefits from the growing relationship between Seonkyeong and Hayeong, who has never trusted adults. A truly unnerving finale puts a new perspective on the plot.

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