This year, I'm trying to read more about other cultures and places in an effort to expand my reading horizons, and I hope, pull myself out of a reading rut. After hearing some good previews about Catherine Chung's debut novel, Forgotten Country, I decided that it was interesting enough to read, and settled in for an evening.
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Janie and Hannah, who with their parents, immigrated to the United States from South Korea when they were very young children. Janie, the elder of the pair, dimly remembers a family story that when there is two sisters in a family, one of the girls will be lost, setting in motions Janie's fears over her younger sister. Living outside of Detroit, Michigan, both of the girls endure bullying at the hands of their schoolmates, with Janie enduring real violence. Hannah is more rebellious than Janie, not afraid to voice her displeasure to her parents, and when Hannah reaches adulthood, Hannah leaves, quite determined to be alone and as far away from her family as possible.
The event breaks Janie's heart, and in the midst of her own studies, tries to find her sister, but only recieves silence in return. The memories of her grandmother's stories haunt her, and she fights between keeping her parents happy as a good Korean daughter does, her own desires in forming a future, and her studies in mathematics.
But the dynamic changes once again when her father announces that he has cancer and wants to return to South Korea, to find either an alternate treatment or to die, no matter the outcome. Janie in turn responds by heading off to California to the last known place where her sister was, and finds Hannah. Hannah, quite content and successful to be away from the stifling atmosphere of home. Not even the news of illness can budge Hannah, who only replies that she will see.
Consumed with guilt, anger and frustration, Janie returns to Korea with her family, to seething family politics and a culture that is as alien to her now as Michigan was when she was a child...
This one isn't quite a novel, but rather a stream-of-conscienous story, told from the point of view of Janie, a young woman who is isolated in her home and the outside world. Janie's narrative isn't quite reliable, coloured as it were by past memories, and the things that she thinks she saw and heard. In this regard, it's a great novel, and I found Janie's tale of sisterly rivalry to be a good one -- I was caught up in her story, and especially where she was struggling with her degree in mathematics.
I also enjoyed how the author wove in the story of the past, from a Korea consumed in war, and the relationship between the father of the family, and that of his sister Kono, a meddlesome woman who not only gloats in her sons -- a prize in Korean culture -- but continually reminds her in-laws that they are far inferior to her and pretty much scum of the earth.
One scene is rather haunting, where the story of the Cliff of Falling Flowers is related, in rather rich prose, and while I won't say what it is, the images still haunt me.
For those who like tales of outsiders and immigrants, this one does work. It's a quick read, and one that kept me enthralled from begining to end. While there are some blunders, especially in the ending which feels very open-ended, it is a good read. I can happily recommend this one for a thoughtful read.
Four stars overall, recommended.
2012; Riverhead Books, Penguin Group USA
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