I want so much to know whether Jung Yun has a second book in process. And if so, when I will be able to get hold of it.
It is not often that I am stunned and bewitched by a novel, particularly a debut novel. All too often I understand the characters too early, push through a sagging middle section only to arrive at a fall-flat ending. Rarely do I find a theme so engaging, a plot which moves without losing rhythm, characters three dimensional enough to be authentic and vivid, but with that tinge of mystery that makes them unintelligible, human, complex and unpredictable to the very last page.
Shelter is the story of a man who cannot respond to love, even the love of his child. It is the story of a family, an immigrant family, or perhaps I should say of a kinship of three families connected by bonds of disdain. Economic disparities, generational conflict and cultural collisions have brought them here. Only trauma can force them to unwilling engagement, tearing the veil of duty to expose secrets, hatred and even tenderness.
Kyung Cho, the protagonist, is a first generation Korean American and professor of biology. His wife Gillian comes from a family of Irish American policemen. Their son Ethan is four years old.
The couple is financially ruined. We meet them as they await a realtor, whom Gillian hopes may provide some hope, some solution. Their house was more than they could afford when they bought it, and is now underwater due to the 2008 recession. Their credit cards are all maxed out. Kyung “was raised to believe that owning a home meant something. Losing a home like this—that would mean something too.” Immobilized before the broken garbage disposal he lacks both skill and will to fix, Kyung is dismally aware that “nothing in his house works anymore. . .”
Kyung’s own parents are quite different. His father is also an academic, a professor of engineering, but culturally, financially and temperamentally they are from another world. Jin and Mae Cho live high up the hill in the most exclusive section of a very wealthy neighborhood. Their home was built in the 19th century and has been restored and decorated to museum perfection. Their clothes are always well cut, stylish and immaculate, matching their manners which are unfailingly impeccable and in keeping with formal and ritualistic Korean tradition.
Kyung and Gillian visit his parents only when absolutely necessary. On these occasions, Kyung carefully instructs his wife as to when and how to bow, where to cast her eyes, what to say and not say. She does her best to behave perfectly so that Kyung may not be shamed.
Gillian’s own family is so different. Both her father Connie and her brother Tim are policemen. They live in the same community, but in a rather downtrodden working class part of town. Kyung is embarrassed by his in-laws “crude” ways. He keeps his distance and has never met Connie’s girlfriend. His in-laws were not happy when Gillian brought an Asian man home for them to meet. They are not happy with Kyung now.
Connie and Tim have never been to the elegant home of Kyung’s parents. “They were invited once, shortly after he and Gillian eloped, but they declined the invitation, which was never extended again.” Although unsaid, it is clear that no visits have taken place the other way around either. Distance and disdain mark the relationships among the three families.
Kyung actually hates both his parents. He hates his father for beating his mother, and he hates his mother for not leaving Jin. His childhood was dominated by dread – dread of the inevitable next violent episode. As for their relation with him, Kyung never felt any affection from either of them as a boy. He cannot move beyond this reality, as Gillian keeps reminding him. Instead he broods like a prisoner pacing round and round a tiny cell, buying a house a few miles from the parents he hates just to make sure he can’t forget the trauma of his childhood. And now Kyung has drawn his own son into his mental prison. Unable to show affection to four year old Ethan, he berates himself for his lack of aptitude as a father, becoming enraged at any closeness between Jin and the small boy.
Kyung is in fact unable to be close to anyone. Besides hating his parents, staying away from the “cops,” and standing paralyzed in face of his small son’s need for him, his relationship with colleagues is empty and troubled: “real friendships always seemed like too much work to him, too primed for disappointment.”
This cold détente would perhaps never have erupted except that one day Kyung and Gillian see a naked, bloody woman stumbling across the conservation land toward their house – and squinting, they recognize it is Kyung’s mother. His parents and their maid have been brutally attacked. Their once elegant home is now a blood smeared wreckage of smashed glass and broken furniture.
The assault and its consequences hurl all the characters together. They are now the victims, the victims’ family members and the police who must solve the crime.
The mystery lying behind the home invasion, the impact of the physical and psychological horror on the characters, their conflicts, their former distance take the reader on a breathtaking story of naked human emotion. Nothing happens as might be predicted.
I confess to being surprised when I finished the book and saw the author’s picture: Jung Yun is a woman. Because the author’s name is Korean, I had not recognized it as feminine. And there are still far fewer women writing about men than men writing about women.
Jung Yun herself was born in South Korea and raised in North Dakota, a first generation Korean American.
This is her debut novel. It is said that first novels are almost always quite autobiographical, and I suspect this is true from perspective of culture clash. The high expectations, shame orientation, and formality of the Korean culture are well portrayed. The generational conflicts and stresses felt by children of immigrants, perhaps particularly Korean immigrants, are well known. Even if Jung Yun did not experience these herself, she would surely have been familiar with them. But Kyung had reasons for hating his parents which go far beyond this. The book exposes some very dark secrets.
There were two things that distracted me. We are told that Jin had “inventions”; I needed a bit more information to explain how an academic became so wealthy. And I never quite got used to the name “Connie” for Gillian’s father. But these are small points.
I am fascinated that Yun leaves many loose ends – and yet the book is clearly complete with the last sentence. Shelter leaves subplots unresolved. But this works – at least it works well for me. More pages with more words would have become tedious and would not have added to book. They perhaps would have been simply like water disappearing slowly down a drain. Instead we leave Kyung in a final superb scene.
Many stories engage us because they are also our story. Shelter is not my story. It was simply captivating.
Now it’s your turn: What books will you always remember although both characters and plot are far from your own experience?