A lyrically evocative, haunting first novel follows an aged Korean War vet and drifter as he returns to the sweet-bitter Montana home of his youth.
With one good eye and little memory after receiving a gunshot wound to the head (probably self-inflicted, but he doesn’t remember), Gabriel has found his way back to the ranch country of Thalo Valley after 40 years absence. Owning nothing but the clothes on his back, whiskey, and a satchel containing a letter from his past he can’t read, Gabe aims to reclaim his place at the sheep ranch where he brought a Korean peasant girl home after the war as a way of making amends for being involved in the American “potshot” killing of fleeing refugees at No Gun Ri. Now in her mid-50s, tormented by spooky superstitions and a bossy, promiscuous teenaged daughter who runs the ranch, the Korean woman (called Yahng Yi’s Mother because Gabe can’t remember her name) has been waiting for Gabe all these years, determined that his return, like his saving her in Korea, is palcha—fate. Yet Gabe can’t remember their love, but only an earlier time, before the war, when he loved the owner of the ranch, Emily Cottage, who has since died under suspicious circumstances. Complicating things is the hostility of hot-blooded daughter Yahng Yi, the scourge of the randy local cowherds, who makes him think, more sorrowfully than lustfully, of the young and lovely Emily. The writing here is deft and moving, offering vivid description of both the Montana setting and the remembered Korean landscape. As the details of Gabe’s memory begin to fill in—the relationships among the inhabitants of Thalo Valley are murky and incestuous—the novel proves eerily suspenseful, ending on a redemptive note.
A gracefully rendered, beautifully characterized tale about an unusual life: Jae-Suk Lee is a writer to watch.