Catherine Chung’s lovely, elegiac novel is a portrait of a contemporary Korean-American family’s displacement and losses. The family’s sorrows are played out against the backdrop of political upheavals in their ancestral homeland and the painful process of assimilation they face early on in their adoptive country. The somberness of the narrative is leavened by the deftness of Chung’s storytelling and the nuanced precision with which she limns the pain and joy of familial relationships.
The novel opens with two losses - the family’s younger daughter Hannah has gone missing from her apartment in Chicago where she’s a college student, and the father has been diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer. These are just the latest woes - the past two generations of the family in Korea have suffered dispossession and worse - and though the losses are relentless, so, too, are flashes of “fierce and desperate love.’’
Janie, the elder sister, tells her family’s story, moving back and forth in time, from her wayward sister’s recent disappearance to memories of 20 years ago when the family fled their native country and immigrated to Michigan. As is true of most of the details of the family’s past, the reason for their precipitate move from Korea is shrouded in their parents’ stoic silence, though Janie has heard whispers about her father’s pro-democracy pamphlet that stirred dissension in the family and caused him to be labeled an “enemy of the state.’’ The first half of the novel takes place in this country; the second, in Korea, though the history of the extended family’s legacy of sorrows is intricately woven throughout.
Like her sister, 28-year-old Janie is an amalgam of both cultures, now thoroughly Americanized, yet steeped in the Korean myths and family stories her mother and grandmother told them when they were children. Just after Hannah disappears, their father gets his dire medical prognosis, and with their mother, prepares to return to South Korea for experimental chemotherapy treatments in Seoul. Frantic with worry over Hannah, the parents charge Janie with finding her and bringing her home.
Long before those demands, Janie has been responsible for protecting her younger sister. When Hannah was born, their grandmother had revealed the family’s “curse’’ to Janie: In each generation, a sister had died. Their grandmother had lost a sister, as had their mother. It became Janie’s job to keep Hannah safe. Throughout their childhood, the sisters had an intense bond, playing games they adapted from their mother’s stories: They became heavenly maidens or seal women; they pretend-jumped off trains as their father had to do as a boy, and sometimes they played “the dead auntie’’ game, one that always brought Janie a shiver of dread. Beneath the games and banter, Janie always felt put upon, unappreciated, while Hannah felt suffocated. Neither adhered to their mother’s injunctions about “gratitude, filial duty, and decency,’’ but Hannah actively defied them.
What both sisters do at this critical juncture when their lives are once again in upheaval reveals their very different temperaments as well as their similar loyalties. Chung’s haunting novel is both heartbreaking and redemptive. It also perfectly illustrates one of the many Korean folk tales woven into Chung’s assured debut novel: There was once a woman who besought Buddha to bring her dead child back to life. Buddha tells her he will grant her wish when she brings him a blanket from a house that hadn’t known sorrow. The woman returned, empty-handed, having learned Buddha’s lesson that “no one can be spared loss, that this is the cost of life.’’