‘Shelter’ is the debut novel of Jung Yun, a Korean-American and assistant professor of English at the George Washington University. The book has garnered rave reviews since it was first published in March this year. The events in the novel are set into motion when a debt-ridden Kyung Cho unwillingly takes in his well-to-do parents after they are brutalized in a traumatic home-invasion. According to the blurb, "Tensions quickly mount as Kyung's proximity to his parents forces old feelings of guilt and anger to the surface, along with a terrible and persistent question: How can he ever be a good husband, father, and son when he never knew affection as a child?"
Well, this is one instance where the blurb undersells the book. I went in expecting a typical dysfunctional family drama full of tears, conflicts and reconciliations. After finishing it off in one sitting, I say it is not just another book about a dysfunctional family with a kind-off happy ending. Yes, it is the story of a family coming to terms with past hurt. Yes, it has cultural and generational conflicts. But it is not a story where relationships are complicated by lack of conversations or misunderstandings. ‘Coming to terms’ falls short in describing the case of Cho family. This book is emotionally brutal, more bitter than sweet.
Divided into three acts – dawn, day, and night – Shelter moves fluidly through the life of the Chos when they are forced to confront their demons after being brought together under one roof by a tragedy. As the story unfolds, the suspense makes the novel feel more of a thriller, each act peeling away layers to the truth. You are reeled into the changing family dynamics, where escalating tensions eventually bring the story of the Chos to a full circle, culminating in a surprising, but sad, twist. It made me wonder if the title ‘Shelter’ reflects the hope of refuge sought by the characters, in the words of the poet Maya Angelou, “…the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned”.
Another thing I liked was that none of the characters are irreproachable here, even the victims. There is no martyr here. It is difficult to feel sorry for the protagonist Kyung Cho as he deals with anguish, guilt, shame and resentment. I was not sure whether I should empathize with him as he tried to harmonize his Korean upbringing with the American way of life or be repelled by his selfish, self-pitying, self-sabotaging actions. You can sense he’s about to crash and burn. Nevertheless, you can understand Kyung’s frustration with his mother, especially when he recounts the memory of his mother with bruises on her legs, trying out new attire in front of the mirror. You can feel the rage, bubbling beneath the surface. It is these imperfections, interspersed with acts of kindness, which make all the characters and their dilemmas so real and relatable.
While not the bleakest book on the shelf, ‘Shelter’ shakes you to the core since it is devoid of any sensationalism. The words left unwritten accentuate the darkness of the crimes. In the absence of gory graphic details, the imagination goes on the overdrive making the violence more horrifying and unsettling. At times, it feels as if there are too many things going on – identity, abuse, violence, infidelity, murder, money problems, and more. But life is messy, and luckily Jung Yun saves the reader from being overwhelmed with her simple yet skillful writing.
The ending is predictable but the story itself is powerful enough to make up for any flaws in the writing. By the end of ‘Shelter’ I was left abuzz with so many questions. This novel is a thought-provoking statement on violence as a black hole, leaving nothing but empty shells in its wake. It is about forgiveness and seeking forgiveness. But can everything be forgiven? Can somebody just forgive and forget? Can a person truly change, or are they just faking it? More importantly, can hopelessness be inherited?
A few of my favourite lines from ‘Shelter’:
“Because hearing a beating and not being able to do anything about it are their own form of punishment.”
“His wife and child should come before anyone else. But this is an American idea too. On the other side of the world, the world he never truly left, it’s parents first, children second, wife last.”
“He hated her then – he hates her still – for teaching him that everyone had a price.”
“He’s angry with his parents and sad for them.”
“Such a simple thing they’re doing, and she’s never looked happier, as if she never had reason to be happy before.”
“Whatever that small seed of hope resided, it no longer exists, and what they were to each other is what they’ll always be. Tethered, somehow. Drawn together by a force that should have kept them close but repelled them instead.”
“If they wait here long enough, morning will finally reach them.”