Welcome to Fine Reads. Our new monthly book club, we’ve teamed up with Penguin Random House to bring you our edit of literature’s most exciting releases. From established writers to new authors, we’ll be inspiring you with our reviews, interviews and reading lists. For our inaugural Fine Reads we met Min Kym, professional violinist and author of ‘Gone: A Girl, A Violin, A Life Unstrung’. A tale of her musical career, the book’s main focus is on the theft of Min’s beloved 300-year-old Stradivarius violin from Euston train station in 2010. We sat down with Min to talk about the theft, forgiveness and moving veins.
Many of us will have some experience of playing an instrument as a child. Chances are it was something like a recorder that produced nothing more than an out-of- tune, plasticy-sounding note on the rare occasion we could actually be bothered to play. This was definitely not the case for Min Kym. Six and a half when she first picked up the violin (she only learned to play because violin lessons fitted in with her older sister’s piano tutorials), Min showed a natural talent for the instrument and quickly raced through her grade exams (she passed the first four within three months of learning to play).
While this sounds young to those of us who aren’t professional musicians, Min laughs when I ask her if she’d consider learning later if she could do it all again. ‘I don’t think I was very young! Six and a half is just on the cusp of being too late.’ Playing an instrument is, she explains, like learning a language. ‘There’s that window where it’s possible to be second nature and once you’ve passed that window it will always be a foreign language, even if you speak it fluently. I think seven is the absolute cut-off point where it can be completely absorbed.’ It’s not just ‘absorbing’ an instrument, there are also the physical demands it makes on the player’s body: ‘my veins have all shifted because of years and years of having my arm like this [when playing the violin].’
So how did a talented child violinist become one of music’s most celebrated soloists? Born in South Korea, Min moved over to the UK with her parents and sister when she was three. Shortly after learning to play the violin, the family relocated back to South Korea, leaving behind Min’s musical education and an offer at the prestigious Purcell School. ‘Going back to Korea was a huge culture shock,’ remembers Min. ‘My memories of living in Korea were so few so I suppose my most formative memories were built in the Western culture.’
Realising the effect the move had had on his youngest daughter, Min’s father made the radical decision of going against his family’s expectations of staying to look after his elders and moved back to the West. And so Min was able to continue her musical education, first at The Purcell School (she became their youngest ever pupil when she joined at seven) and then at the Royal College of Music. Despite her quick progress, Min says that she didn’t realise at the time how big her achievements were. ‘When you’re a child, everything feels normal. I didn’t really know other people apart from the sort that played instruments so I didn’t really have anyone to compare with.’ During this time the phrase ‘child prodigy’ was bandied around a lot. Is that a label she can ever shake off? ‘It’s taken me until adulthood to say the word!’ she laughs. ‘I think having that sort of aptitude of an instrument and music; it’s all part of my identity.’
It wasn’t until Min was 21 – and well after she had turned professional – that she met her Stradivarius. Made in 1696 by a luthier called Antonio Stradivari, this particular violin is described by Min in the same way someone would describe their soulmate. For Min, her new violin was exactly that. The love affair came to a cruel halt when, in 2010, her Strad was stolen from her at Pret A Manger in Euston, after an argument with her then boyfriend Matt when he insisted she put her violin to the side instead of keeping hold of it. Despite never doing this, she finally gave in. It was at this moment that three professional thieves created a distraction – and pounced.
The subsequent description not only of what happened directly afterwards but also of her post-Strad recovery is heartbreaking to read. Has she ever been able to forgive Matt? ‘To be absolutely honest with you, I blame myself above all,’ she confides. ‘It took me a really long time to forgive myself for being worn down by the argument and so on and so forth. I think that was actually part of the process of writing the book, learning to forgive myself.’
Due to the trauma caused by the theft, it took Min years to be able to discuss what happened. ‘I found it so difficult to talk about for such a long time that when I actually started talking about it and writing things down I just couldn’t stop.’ It’s clear just by talking to Min that it is still – even after nearly seven years – extremely painful for her to relive and she admitted she avoids Euston’s food court at all costs. ‘I haven’t been back. I would find it very difficult to go back.’
To those of us who don’t play the violin, it is hard to get our heads around the idea of an instrument being worth so much, both emotionally and monetary (it was worth over £1.2million when it was stolen). ‘Gone’ helps you – the reader – to get a handle on both. A relatively small book (it’s less than 300 pages), it offers a valuable insight into the world of both professional musicians and the impact of crime. This is definitely one to add to your holiday reading list.
Gone: A Girl, A Violin, A Life Unstrung’ is published by Viking and available now in hardback priced at £14.99.
Photography by Will Douglas