A young woman struggles to understand her sometimes-competing roles as daughter, sister, scholar and Korean American in Chung’s darkly luminous debut.
Twenty years ago Janie and Hannah moved with their parents to Michigan to avoid reprisals by South Korea’s then-authoritarian government against their brilliant mathematician father’s incendiary political pamphlet. Janie, now a graduate student in mathematics in Chicago, has always grudgingly accepted the way her family considers it her responsibility as older sister to protect more openly rebellious Hannah. When Hannah drops out of college and takes off for California, cutting off communication with her traditionally tight knit family, Janie is furious. Then her father is diagnosed with a form of cancer best treated, ironically, in Korea. Dispatching Janie to find Hannah and break the news, her parents return to Korea. Janie finds Hannah thriving in Los Angeles. During a quarrel, Janie claims their parents are done with Hannah and tells her not to come to Korea. To Janie’s surprise, Hannah acquiesces and stays behind. Janie arrives in Korea alone, claiming Hannah couldn’t get away. Ensconced with her parents in a lovely Korean home and visited by devoted (if sometimes rancorous) family and friends, Janie develops a deeper appreciation for her parents’ history, particularly her father’s. His health seems to improve, and she luxuriates in his approval and her role as the good daughter. But when his condition suddenly worsens, Janie’s mother calls Hannah herself. Hannah comes immediately, and, to Janie’s chagrin, the family embraces her as if she never deserted it. As their father’s health deteriorates, Janie and Hannah’s sibling rivalry comes to a head, but their bond is stronger than either has recognized. Despite some missteps into clichés about abuse, Chung delves with aching honesty and beauty into large, difficult questions—the strength and limits of family, the definition of home, the boundaries (or lack thereof) between duty and love—within the context of a Korean experience.
Chung’s limpid prose matches her emotional intelligence.