Monday, January 09, 2012

Another book review

Forgotten Country, by Catherine Chung, tells the story of a family of four who leave Korea during a dangerous time. Their two little girls will now live in Michigan, go to school where they will look different from everyone else, speak a different language, and even use different names. The older sister, Jeehyun, becomes Janie, and her sister Haijin becomes Hannah.

We learn about their relationship with each other, then with their extended family, especially their maternal grandmother and paternal aunt and her sons. The way they interact displays much about their culture. For instance, their father's older sister, who had to raise and take care of him, is very critical that he has just two daughters. He should insist that they keep trying for a son! This aunt also allows her own sons to act selfishly and treat their female cousins horribly. This does create horrible friction between Janie and Hannah's parents, since their mother is tired of trying for a boy.

So, Janie and Hannah grow up in the US, but constantly feel the tug of another culture. Janie is charged with forever taking care of and protecting Hannah, a duty she grows to resent, while Hannah finds the pressure of becoming someone she doesn't want to be so harsh that she simply disappears for over a year, intentionally causing her family extreme distress. During this time, Janie is under intense pressure to find her and bring her back.

When their father is diagnosed with cancer and eventually decides to go back to Korea for treatment, Janie does board a plane and reach her sister. Unfortunately, the encounter goes poorly, and the only thing Janie successfully does is convey the fact that their father has cancer and is in Korea. Worse, during a fight, Janie spitefully tells Hannah not to come; her family is finished with her.

Eventually, their mother calls Hannah, who for once answers her phone and agrees to join her family in Korea. Each sister has her own version of what took place during their last visit together, and the tension is riveting.

As their father's condition slowly deteriorates, Janie and Hannah slowly start to coexist peacefully and accept the past. They confront their parents' culture, cope with it in their own ways, and part as two independent women.

I found this to be a fascinating novel and was impressed by the range of emotion author Catherine Chung was able to convey. I actually felt Janie's indignation when she fought with Hannah, and Hannah's anger and outrage towards their aunt. Every woman in this family has had to endure injustices and indignities and the pent up angst causes them to clash spectacularly. Chung explores these women's roles and duties, as well as their resentments and jealousies, with remarkable insight. Janie's love for her father is also clearly evident. It is sad, but also an enlightening journey.

Very good read!

(This was an Early Review book from LibraryThing. Thank you!)

Okay, now I'm going to read my very first P.D. James mystery! It's called Death Comes to Pemberley, and it imagines a mystery involving Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice characters. I've got it on my Nook, and am really looking forward to it!


Doug said...

Touching synopsis.

Logophile said...

That sounds like a heart-wrencher of a book.

And also...
oooooooooooooo PD James, look at you going all old school.
I tend to be suspicious of people writing characters they didn't create so I will be looking forward to your review of that.

TLP said...

Great review. Sounds like a very good book that I shouldn't read in the winter. Life is dark enough right now.

actonbell said...

Doug, it is a very touching book. Chung is a talent!

Logo, I'm into it so far. SO many people have done takes on Jane's books, and PD James is an intriguing addition to the list.

Mom, I think this could be a good movie...