book review

Ethereal stories that explore loss and war, with an edge of light

Hulton Archive/Getty Images/globe illustration

There is something deeply refreshing in this ethereal second collection of stories from Paul Yoon, author of the novel “Snow Hunters’’ and of the collection “Once the Shore.’’ The promise those two books held is here delivered upon, with the result a haunting world tour of the loss and alienation that war and its aftermath has brought us all over the last century. But a tour — and here’s the refreshing part — that allows the smallest nod, the narrowest glance, at hope.

There are only six stories here, each of them stark and atmospheric, the sentences fragmented to reflect the shards left of the lives each tale gives us. But the length of these narratives, their breadth and scope, allow us to experience more fully the lives beyond these shards, the years that pass through them, the change in continents and generations and conflicts and recoveries that are experienced by each story’s protagonist.

Their paths through this world are torturous: Amorphine-addicted mother nurses wounded World War I veterans at a sanatorium in upstate New York with the help of her child, who will grow up to work at a hospital amid the bombings of London in World War II; in the title story, a woman escapes communist China to South Korea, where she finds herself sick and destitute, only to be lured (though kidnapped might be a better word) back to China and a life of indentured factory work near her childhood home, where she inserts endless pins into endless boxes on a camera assembly line. In “Still a Fire,” Mikel and Karine, two refugees in the ruins of Calais after World War II, try to understand if there is even a point to continuing to live in the aftermath and ongoing disaster their lives have endured thus far.


The grim world likewise takes its toll in the remaining three stories, handing out in Yoon’s tight sentences lives shrouded in the pall of terrorist bombings, maimings, betrayals, fatal accidents, addictions and suicides.

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Yet a small edge of light emerges in these stories, cautiously and carefully and each time earned. I’m not going to divulge the ways in which Yoon’s characters find their footing with whatever will come next, but through his sensible turns of plot and that rock-hard prose, we believe him.

Ironically, if there’s a criticism of the book, it’s that Yoon’s sentences — those tough little fragments — sometimes build one on another until the stories begin to sound alike, no matter whether in first person or third. In “A Willow and a Moon,” the narrator says of the mother, “She had gone to Canada before heading to New York. She was going to be a star. The next Chopin. Hands like birds”; in third-person “Galicia,” a young woman reflects on why her husband has left her, “She thought of the day she opened the hotel room door to find Mathis sitting on the edge of the bed. The bowl of seashells. His solitude.” Reading one or two stories in which this rhythm and sound operates can be effective, but too many stories in a row can become a distraction and seem more a poetic habit than a necessary device.

Another criticism might be the cryptic set of objects — and standard archetypes — Yoon seems to have no choice but to employ. Throughout the book, and in no perceivable relation to each other story to story, appear old pianos, horses and their breeding, morphine, missing mothers and distant fathers, a folded sheet of music, and — most curiously — benches. There are a whole lot of benches in here. Benches everywhere.

There’s no real problem per se with a great deal of benches appearing in six stories, or with the breeding of horses, or addictions to morphine. But when they appear in such disparate and unconnected contexts as they do here, one can only surmise that perhaps these objects and types are unexamined talismans out of Yoon’s own life, personal symbols to which he must repair in order to make the stories seem to speak to each other at a level that will unite them. But there’s no need for the shadow of connectivity to these stories: There is enough resonance in the sorrow these people have known and the persistence of the human spirit to make this a book that is more than the sum of its parts.


But these issues are forgivable, quibbles a critic feels compelled to register to make certain the appreciation of Yoon’s work hasn’t gone without scrutiny. Believe me: This is a genuine work of art, a shadowland of survivors that is tough and elegant and true. And beautiful.


By Paul Yoon

Simon and Schuster, 242 pp., $25

Bret Lott, former editor of the Southern Review, teaches at the College of Charleston. His most recent books include “Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian” and the novel “Dead Low Tide.”