If you were born on a small island, like the one in this book, you will always know what your home looks like from a distance. Even if you are not yourself a fisherman, you've probably been out on the water watching your island recede or get closer. From far enough out you will see the shape of your home and understand it is an object in the world and not the world itself. Looking out from shore is the exact opposite: you don't see your home at all, only endless blue space, and the small details of your island are the universe.
Paul Yoon's debut collection, aptly titled "Once the Shore," creates the same impression of simultaneous opposites -- intimacy and infinity, near and far. After reading each one you will experience the same one-second silent gasp that comes after seeing a magic trick, minus the tiny bit of wounded pride that comes with being conned.
Although Yoon's linked stories take place over a 50-year period, the island itself is only one-hour long -- you can get anywhere on it in about 60 minutes. Likewise, Yoon's world, the island, is also many islands at one time, depending on whose tale he's telling.
In the title story, an American widow and a waiter at a coastal resort have both lost a man they loved -- her husband of 50 years, his sailor brother. Yoon drifts past their obvious differences -- culture and class, age and languages -- and settles like the tide on a moment of connection between them. The island becomes her husband's memorial and the young man's steppingstone into adulthood.
Like the following pieces, this tale is delicately paced and precise, possessed of a surgical elegance that paradoxically calms even when describing heartbreak.
Yoon's style is like that throughout the book -- even when an amputee child's wound starts to bleed again at the stump, there is a haunting tranquility in the air around him. His "auntie's" reaction sums up what is unique in Yoon's prose; even as she is furious and sorrowful, she uses context to create distance. She thinks he's being bullied by bigger kids: "His bruises had not entirely healed and now this. He was alone, she thought. And they knew it and they taunted him and he did nothing because he was kind. He let them ... Because he was afraid. Because his life was governed by an incident that had occurred at sea, as though his life was a preparation for when it would happen again embodied in a multitude of shapes and forms and places." These sentences roll in with a slow rhythm that soothes the trauma by describing it so calmly that description nearly becomes that sought-after form of pain relief we call "explanation."
Like the sea around the island, these stories can create both tempests of strong feeling and the tranquility of pure thought. Like an ocean view, this book is at once simple and astonishing. To call it a beach book would be too simple, but it would be perfect to read it on the shore.
Emily Carter is a Minneapolis writer.