Shelter by Jung Yun
I was so excited for this book when I first heard about it. This is a debut novel that sounded like it was going to address the Korean-American child experience with their Korean immigrant parents. This story follows Kyung Cho and his wife, Gillian, as their debts and bad decisions catch up with them and begin to threaten their livelihood. They live very close to Kyung’s parents, Jin and Mae, who gave Kyung everything they could’ve, but never showed a shred of kindness or love or patience. Seemingly out of the blue, a violent act towards Jin and Mae force them to move in with Kyung and Gillian, which also forces out the many issues that the family has bottled up over time.
In reading the synopsis for this, I was strangely excited for the opportunity to read about a struggle that I could partially relate to. My parents were much kinder and more loving growing up, however, we still had to learn the tricky balance that immigrant parents and their American-Born children typically need to learn. How does the family balance the importance of culture and the new culture that they live in? How does the child balance honoring where their ancestors come from and figure out making a new life for themselves? These are so many questions that don’t get addressed or represented in books, so I was excited for a Korean author to take a leap in addressing these issues in this debut novel. Warning: Spoilers ahead and trigger for abuse/rape.
With all of that being said…why the two-star review then? It all boils down to the main protagonist, Kyung. I found Kyung to be the least redeemable character and it drove me nuts. I fully understand, to an extent, that the way a parent treats their child absolutely affects them as they get older. However, to place all blame from everything wrong in your life onto one single factor is a little bit of a cheap move, to me. This sounds harsh, given that his father was abusive and his mother was absent, but I couldn’t sympathize with Kyung’s bad decision making pattern and how he had no choice in ending up like that because of his dad. Kyung’s affair, his drinking, his lack of work ethic…I wanted to see not only some ownership on his end, but also some seeking out of help. He had all the tools to seek out the help needed, but in the end, chose not to. Drove away his wife, his wife’s family, his colleagues, and even his own parents. Kyung, as a protagonist, wasn’t redeemable and I had a hard time connecting with his story.
The one character that was redeemable, however, in this story…was Mae, Kyung’s mother. Mae suffers a horrible incident where she is raped at the beginning of this book, or so we believe she was raped. Two meth heads broke into their home, beat Jin up and locked Mae and the housekeeper, Marina, in the master bedroom and raped them both for money. After this horrifying incident, Mae attemps to return to normalcy and in doing so, starts to stand up for herself. Mae starts to take back bits and pieces of her life, while she can. We learn later that Mae was planning on leaving Jin all along, had secured a job as an interior decorator and had even gotten an apartment to live in above the studio that she would be working for. Sadly, Mae kills herself and the housekeeper in a car wreck…that Kyung blamed himself for after blowing up at her. This was a heartbreaking turn of events to read about, but unfortunately…I understood the need for this in the story. Mae’s death causes Kyung and Jin to both really take a closer look at their own lives and their own actions.
There is some resolution between Jin and Kyung at the end of the book, where we learn that the details of the horrible incident were actually not true. The incident did come from Jin beating Mae and while I’m still a little confused to the rest of the incident, this does lead Jin and Kyung to have a much needed conversation around their relationship and the choices that they’ve both made. My problem with this, however, was that this resolution happened in spite of the women in their lives. Mae was beaten, abused, taken for granted and then killed herself. Gillian, Kyung’s wife, had to put up with an emotionally absent husband and an affair. While both women made decisions to get them out of their respective situations, I don’t appreciate that this story seemed to circulate around objectifying the women in the book and then, in the end, leaving them out high and dry. I found the resolution between Jin and Kyung to be forced and it all happened within the last few pages of the novel, which made it hard for me to feel genuine and not contrived.
All in all, I had some high hopes for this book and I just didn’t feel that the bar was met. This book was sad and heartbreaking, but almost too much and almost without any real purpose. I appreciate the book for what it was, but I was maybe looking for some better resolution in this story than what was provided.