Review published on April 21, 2016.
A Korean-American family faces up to violence past and present in this strong debut novel.
Kyung Cho is a Boston-area biology professor. He and his wife Gillian, who is studying to be a counsellor, are in dire financial straits: they owe the bank more than they can list their house for. Their choices are a short sale, which would be ruinous, or renting the place out and moving in with his parents, who live in a mansion just three miles away. Having grown up in a traditional Korean culture of honour and shame, Kyung has come to “believe that owning a house meant something. Losing a home like this—that would mean something too.”
The tables turn in a shocking way when Kyung’s parents are the victims of a violent house break-in; his mother, Mae, and their housekeeper, a young Bosnian woman named Marina, are also sexually assaulted. Where one moment Kyung thought he could turn to his parents for refuge, he now has to take them in and charge groceries to his credit card. Seeing his mother bloodied and bruised has been a cruel reminder of his father Jin’s history of domestic violence. Although the Chos’ church is very solicitous, the burden of care still falls on Kyung, who can barely cope with work and being a father to four-year-old Ethan as it is.
There is a strong sense here of a familial curse, of being doomed to repeat one’s parents’ mistakes. “I never really had a chance, did I?” Kyung asks rhetorically at one point. Finances and relationships just keep going from bad to worse, as the novel’s tripartite structure suggests: “Dawn” cedes to “Dusk,” which descends into “Night.” You wonder just how terrible things can get – will this really reach the Thomas Hardy levels of tragedy it seems to portend? – until, in the incredible last 10 pages, Yun pulls back from violence and offers the hope of redemption. As bleak as the storyline is in places, in the end it holds up forgiveness as a real possibility.
I did wonder if there were a few too many secondary characters here. Yun has to spend time fleshing out people – like Gillian’s father and brother, and Reverend Sung and his wife – who don’t play an indispensable role, while a character like Marina gets short shrift. However, the novel stands out for the potency of its themes. Revenge, expectations, and remaining in a cycle of violence versus breaking free are all key topics, and the context of Korean-American manners makes a perfect setting. “Children are supposed to honour their parents,” Jin pronounces. “And parents are supposed to take care of their children,” Kyung counters.
This is an accomplished literary fiction debut I would recommend to fans of David Vann and Richard Ford.
Shelter by Jung Yun
Picador 9781509810505 hbk Jun 2016