A gorgeous multigenerational saga of love and race, loss and belonging, Chung’s (Long for This World, 2010) latest follows the intertwining lives of two very different families in Washington, D.C.
Charles Frederick Douglass Lee, the young African-American patriarch of his biracial family, husband of Alice, father of Veda (9, beautiful) and Benny (6, difficult), is doing for his family what his own father couldn’t, or wouldn’t. As a young soldier stationed in Korea, Charles met Alice, fresh out of the Peace Corps and avoiding medical school at home. Alice got pregnant; Charles proposed, determined to “put his head down, do right, and make a family.” And so they have built a life together, stable if not easy. Then Alice returns to work after years at home, and the family (Alice, really—Charles “didn’t believe in babysitters”) hires Hannah Lee, the stoic 13-year-old daughter of Korean immigrants, to look after the kids. In Hannah, Charles finds unlikely kinship, and the two develop a silent understanding, powerful, unspoken, and deeply intimate. “Hannah had no name for her watchfulness toward Charles, and thus she treasured it all the more,” writes Chung. The watchfulness is mutual. But when tragedy strikes, Charles and Hannah are at once ripped apart and forever bound together, and the Lees—all of them—are forced to renegotiate their relationships with each other and with themselves. Quietly expansive, the novel moves between the stories of the two families, alternating glimpses of the past with the present: Hannah’s parents’ forbidden courtship in Korea and a doomed family trip back to the Hadong countryside 10 years later; Alice’s early adulthood and the night she met Charles. Every last one of Chung’s characters is wholly alive and breathtakingly human, but it’s her portrait of teenage Hannah—always complicated, never romanticized—that makes the novel such a heart-wrenching pleasure.
Elegant and empathetic, a book impossible to put down.