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Modernity and distances both geographical and psychological upend a South Korean family.

As noted in the indispensible prefatory character list, the Han family is divided into two branches. The American offshoot is headed by Han Hyun-kyu, a New York City surgeon whose marriage to alcoholic psychiatrist Lee Woo-in is foundering. Their two adult children, sensitive Henry, recently released from rehab, and his photojournalist sister Jane, on leave after her near-fatal brush with an I.E.D. in Baghdad, have more trauma in store—their parents’ impending breakup. Meanwhile, in South Korea, Hyun-kyu’s younger brother Jae-Kyu, also a surgeon, is leading a prosperous but not unduly ostentatious life in a small farming town. But the surface tranquility of the Korean Hans masks dark undercurrents. Jae-Kyu’s pregnant daughter Min-yung is closeted in her childhood bedroom, suffering from a mysterious illness—or is it just the unexplained absence of her feckless husband Woo-sung? Jae-Kyu’s spouse Jung-joo, with the help of housekeeper Cho Jin-sook, runs a household as tightly buttoned-down as her inner life. Exposition filtered through multiple points of view takes up much novelistic space, but the action accelerates when the Korean Hans receive a surprise visit from Jae-Kyu’s American brother, who’s gone AWOL from job and family. Seasoned globetrotter Jane handily tracks down Hyun-kyu and follows him to Korea, where they eventually wear out their welcome. Jane and Min-yung forge an instantaneous connection that has disastrous consequences. Although Chung occasionally relies too much on sudden death to add pathos, her characters are well drawn, particularly the women (except for Jane, who seems to have been plucked from another novel). But the sheer proliferation of voices clamoring to be heard mutes the narrative power, as does the overly complex subdivision of this short work into books, sections and subsections.

An impressive but structurally unwieldy debut.

Pub Date: March 2nd, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-4165-9962-3
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Scribner
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 2010