Secrets are stored in families like prescription drugs and Drano: out of sight, but right there to find as soon as one is tall enough to reach the shelf. This moving debut novel by Catherine Chung is set at that point in young adulthood when worldly wisdom opens the closet door and shines light on a child's life as seen through adult eyes.
When Janie, a Korean-American woman, is dealt the twin blows of estrangement from her younger sister -- her only sibling -- and her father's grave health crisis, she is forced to confront both her sister's childhood trauma and the reality of her parents' early life.
Generations of suffering are revealed and reconsidered, and Chung, using clear prose and a gently melodramatic tone suitable for this heart-rending tale, pulls the reader into both the family's pain and its ironclad bonds of love.
When Janie is very young, her family leaves South Korea after their father publishes an incendiary political pamphlet unfavorable to South Korea's repressive military regime. They make a home in Michigan, but bullying at school and casual racial antipathy never let them forget they are "the other."
Unable to socialize easily like her younger sister, Hannah, Janie settles into a life of academics and filial duty. When Hannah abruptly moves and cuts off all ties to the family, their parents are devastated. And when their father is diagnosed with advanced cancer and he and Janie's mother return to Korea to undergo experimental treatment, it is Janie's responsibility to round up the prodigal daughter and join them.
When Chung moves the setting to Korea, the flower-scented mountain air blows into the story, widens the view, and the full picture of what the family lost in emigrating becomes achingly clear. There are copious devoted relatives ready to help Janie's beleaguered family unit; there is a sense of belonging to an ancient and beautiful culture; and there is Janie's redrawn image of her parents after she experiences the people and places of their youths. Chung makes us feel the revelation every time another piece is put in Janie's family puzzle.
"Forgotten Country" is often wrenching, but Chung's graceful writing -- replete as it is with delicately rendered family affections, snippets of Korean folklore and an unerring sense of storytelling -- lifts the tragedies into the realm of lovely melancholia. The pain Janie feels with all of her discoveries isn't enviable, but the peace that the hard-swallowed wisdom brings her is touching and true.
Cherie Parker is a book critic in Washington, D.C.