They’re like great trees, these violins. Like those from which they’re made. They live through epochs.
Min Kym fell in love for the first time as a young child with a violin. Parental expedience demanded that she play either trumpet or violin as those were the only instructors available in the same time slot as Kym’s older sister’s piano lesson. She was immediately taken with the instrument. In the week between settling on the violin and receiving her first, she cut out a paper violin to “play”.
Kym’s talent was so prodigious that her parents left their lives in South Korea behind in order to live in the United Kingdom, where teachers who could match and encourage her growth could be found.
At the age of 21, she fell in love again, this time with a Stradivari violin made in 1696. It was love at first sight yet again; from the first bow stroke, there was no other instrument for Kym. For 10 years, she and the violin continued to grow together. She learned its quirks, how it needed to be babied, where the wolf notes were and how to play around them, and it rewarded her by singing beautifully.
It ended in a moment, in a crowded sandwich shop in Euston Station, when thieves snatched it from a pile of bags.
Kym’s memoir is spare and poetic. The book is slow-going until the theft. She spends the first half of the book describing her early years as a student and the succession of instructors, some difficult, some nurturing. She mentions, briefly, the difficulty of her parents’s traditional Korean ways and the world in which she was being pulled. It’s clear the relationship suffers, but she breezes past this. The parents, the instructors are not the point. The violin is the point.
By the time she reaches her recounting of the theft, you can appreciate the significance of the loss. Kym does a wonderful job of explaining just how deeply a musician is connected to their instrument.
The theft throws Kym off balance. Depression claims her, makes it difficult for her to get out of bed, to feed herself. It is akin to missing a limb, losing a sense, losing a child. When it becomes clear that the violin is gone, she struggles to find her way back into life and music.
Spoiler-not-spoiler: the violin is ultimately recovered. However, in recovery, it is lost again. Kym plays a different violin these days, her Stradivarius having passed to a new owner shortly after recovery.
A gathering of men had come and whisked the violin away from me. Men whom I knew. Men whom I trusted. The tools of their trade reason and cajolement. The only difference between them and the thieves was that now it looked like I’d never get my violin back.
At one point, Kym mentions that she does not intend for these men to be portrayed as “bad guys”, but she absolutely fails on that point. I absolutely raged at two of them in particular who pushed her into the corner in which she ended up. They come across as malevolent, manipulative figures, and it’s clear she had an axe to grind there.
I did not love the narrator–the voice was a little too breathy for my taste–but I recommend the audiobook version because it includes snippets of music at certain places throughout the text. (I understand the book comes with a “playlist”, but does not include a CD or digital downloads. The pieces aren’t difficult to find, but it’s nice to have them embedded along with the story.)
Kym’s memoir is a fitting love story for her violin. I’m only sorry that it doesn’t have a happy ending.