Gone by Min Kym review – moving memoir of a former child prodigy

The story of the gifted virtuoso who grew up to international stardom – and then her beloved violin was stolen

In Gone, Min Kym’s memoir about her life as a violin soloist, she relates a possibly apocryphal legend about the French violinist Ginette Neveu, who was touring when her plane crashed into a mountain. She died, as did everyone else in the plane. In the wreckage, Neveu’s corpse was discovered with her beloved Stradivarius still gripped in her hand. Kym, like Neveu, was a child prodigy who grew up to be a brilliant professional musician; also like Neveu, Kym played, and loved, a Stradivarius, one of just 449 in the world. But Kym lost her Stradivarius when she was 31 years old, a loss so terrible it left her unable to play the violin.

From age six, Kym hadn’t gone a day without practising. When she started learning to play the instrument, she “felt like a creature released, alive in herself for the first time”. Even then, she says, “I knew I could play anything. Anything. This was not arrogance – I was a shy child, reluctant to come forward, to give voice, to take centre stage – but more simply that I had found, not only my home and my voice, but my element.” Others agreed. Kym’s chronicle of childhood glitters with the wunderkind’s starry achievements: the first this, the youngest that. Concert soloist at 10 years old. Youngest pupil ever at the prestigious Purcell School. When she was 12, Kym was playing professionally in five to six concerts a year; at 13, she had her debut concerto with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra. She performed with the pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, won prizes, played in Madrid, Seoul, Bologna and Seville.

In this first part of Gone, it’s fascinating how positive Kym is about playing music. One is more used to hearing artists complain about the difficulty of their passions, about how musicians, painters and writers aspire to what cannot quite be done, ever bedevilled by the gaps between human ability and the ideal. Though Kym does discuss the pressure and loneliness of having been a prodigy, a child set apart, she says that, when it came to the playing itself, “it wasn’t a burden. It wasn’t even a demand.” She always washed her hands before lessons, to keep her violin clean, then returned at a run to the practice room, impatient to begin again. As she grew older and purchased increasingly beautiful violins, she often left the instrument out of its case between sessions. “Because I needed it near me,” she explains. “It was me.” (Compare this with George Enesco, for instance, the Romanian musician who called his violin his “intimate enemy”.)

She was 21 when she was offered the chance to play a 1696 Stradivarius, one that turned out to be rare even for a Strad, unusual in build and weight. From the first stroke of her bow, she knew the violin to be hers: “It felt as if 300 years ago Stradivari had held his hands over a length of wood and fashioned this violin just for me, that all her life, my Strad had been waiting for me as I had been waiting for her.” Kym sold her old violin, remortgaged her flat, bought the instrument, then, over the course of years, made tiny adjustments to make it exactly right. She shifted the bridge, the sound post, shaved the neck a millimetre at a time. It took three years for her to find the perfect bow. At last, she says, the violin became “absolute in its readiness … just like an arm or a leg.”

But it was a fragile instrument, and previously damaged. Kym didn’t like to let it out of her sight. If she was sitting, she kept the strap around her ankle. She likens the Stradivarius to a child, a soulmate, a voice, a lover, a bridge, a limb. Her love of the violin surpassed what she’d felt for any person. Kym picked up a significant prize as well as recordings with Sony, and believes it wouldn’t have been possible without the violin. “It made me weightless, limitless,” she says. “I never questioned my existence … There was not one single moment when I didn’t want to play.”

But the idyll ends. And by the time she relates what became of the violin, any question as to how the theft was a catastrophe has been dispelled. Soulmates are unique; insured or not, Kym’s Stradivarius could not be replaced. Though the violin eventually is recovered from the thieves, it’s too late. For financial reasons, Kym can’t keep the instrument, and its loss is no less than the death of a great love; accordingly, the narrative becomes disordered, tenses shifting. A previously unmentioned close friend is dropped into the story, as is a childhood illness. “There are so many things to say, it’s hard to know where to start, how to separate them all into bare paragraphs and sentences,” Kym writes.

This reviewer, for one, could feel inclined to object to that “bare” (sentences are not bare; sentences possess magic), but Kym’s achievement exceeds infelicities of prose. At one point in Gone, her mentor, Ruggiero Ricci, aged 85, has sold his violin of 50 years and retired to Palm Springs. “Shall I tell you something, Min? I’ve had three wives but only one violin,” he says, and, thanks to Kym, we know what he means.

Gone is published by Viking. To order a copy for £11.24 (RRP £14.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99. RO Kwon’s novel Heroics will be published by Riverhead.

RO Kwon

The GuardianTramp

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