In her debut short story collection, Krys Lee, born in Korea, raised in the United States and now residing in Seoul, is already a precise stylist and an unflinching observer of the unfortunate lot of her compatriots, those who stay at home and those who make it to the States. Cowed by brutal dictatorships and further crushed by economic collapse in the late 1990s, none of her protagonists can catch a break.

In "A Temporary Marriage," Mrs. Lim enters an arranged marriage and has some economic success in California, but she can't escape her own damaged psyche. In the title story, two boys and their crippled sister try to make their way to China in bitter winter. Here, as elsewhere in the collection, Lee demonstrates a gift for the telling detail and exact metaphor. "The night was a black glove. The mountains an endless rubble of loose stones. The stars the eyes of the dead."

In "The Believer," Jenny and her father, marooned in Trenton, N.J., drive past "stretches of strip malls with parking lots big enough for a dozen cemeteries."

A few stories don't work because of the beginner's fault of overly dramatic plotting, as when the teenager in "The Believer" enters her house on the first page to find a dismembered boy, and in "The Goose Father" when a boy's pet goose is to be taken as his mother. But in the best stories, like the tragic yet luminous "A Small Sorrow," the story of a flawed marriage and an artistic rivalry, Lee's psychological acuity is empathetic under its unsentimental portraiture.