Forgotten Country by Catherine Chung – Book Review

Forgotten Country by Catherine Chung
Published by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin

In every generation of Janie’s family, one sister is lost. Her aunt, for instance, was ostensibly kidnapped from her college dorm by North Koreans, never to be heard from again. Even worse, the family could not attempt to look for her, because the insinuation that one had dealings with North Korea could ruin a Korean family. Janie, at least, has the freedom to look for her sister Hannah. For one thing, their family now lives in America, having moved there when the girls were young for fear of repercussions from Janie’s father’s politics.

When Hannah disappears without a trace – although clearly voluntarily – it would certainly be possible for Janie to track her down and, initially, she contemplates doing so. After their father is diagnosed with late-stage cancer, though, Janie begins to feel increasingly frustrated with and betrayed by her sister. Hannah is not their for their father, their family, so why should Janie expend energy on trying to draw her back into the fold? When the girls’ parents return to Korea in hopes finding a doctor who can cure their father – or at least prolong his life – Janie is forced to track Hannah down, whether or not she actually wants her sister to return.

With Forgotten Country Chung has created a beautifully sad portrait of a family. That they are Korean and have immigrated to the United States and return to their native land is in some ways incidental to the universal story of family love, jealousy, and betrayal. At the same time, it is their cultural heritage and immigration status and the authentic ways that these aspects of who they are inform their lives that brings Chung’s characters so vividly to life.

Chung’s writing is beautiful and her characters are alive, so I can recommend Forgotten Country without reservation.

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This Burns My Heart by Samuel Park – Book Review

This Burns My Heart by Samuel Park
Published by Simon & Schuster

Life is good for Soo-Ja Choi, although she is not really content. The strong-willed young woman is determined to go to Seoul to become a diplomat, against the wishes of the father who loves her and wants to keep her close. Soo-Ja believes she has found a way to get what she wants when Min, a weak, impressionable man, asks for her hand in marriage. She is positive she can convince him to go with her to Seoul, but once they are wed it becomes apparent that Min is not the man he represented himself to be. Before long, Soo-Ja finds herself aware of just how different life could have been had she instead married Yul, the handsome young student activist who proposed to her during her engagement to Min.

When Yul asked that single yes or no question – Come with me – and she said no, Soo-Ja did not know what she was saying no to. She did not know the size and weight of the consequences, how life is not set down like train tracks, and you don’t just ride above it. The life she had could not be that different from the one she could have had, she had thought. I am the same person, surely the story unfolds roughly the same way?… We’re only given one life, and it’s the one we live, she had thought; how painful now, to realize that wasn’t true, that you would have different lives, depending on how brave you were, and how ready. Love came to her that day – she was twenty two – and wanted to take her, and she said no. -p. 245

This Burns My Heart is an exquisite debut novel from Samuel Park. Park manages to bring Soo-Ja to life in a compelling way, despite the fact that the novel jumps months and years at a time. No matter what circumstances occurred in the intervening time, Soo-Ja was always just as dynamic as she had previously been. This is a function both of Park’s strong characterization, but also of his vivid and poetic use of language.

Soo-Ja realized at that moment that the biggest luxury in life was the ability to make plans, to count on the future as if it were something pinned down on a map. -p. 111

In addition to his strength in characterization and prose, Park’s plotting was top-notch. He knows exactly how long to spend in any various period of Soo-Ja’s life to balance sufficient detail with the need to keep the plot moving forward. Of course, like any debut, This Burns My Heart isn’t perfect. Scattered in three or four passages throughout the book were parenthetical statements that would have worked better either incorporated straight into the text or eliminated altogether. Of course, the weakness of these parentheticals was only as apparent as it was due to the strength of the rest of Park’s writing, so the inclusion of, at most, five unsatisfactory sentences is hardly even to be considered a weak point.

All in all a stunning novel, Samuel Park is a writer to watch and I highly recommend that you start by reading This Burns My Heart.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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