Once again, a big thank you to Goodreads for letting know about Shelter by Jung Yun. Ultimately, books that really interest me are the ones that ask those hard to answer questions. In this case, the questions is what obligation, if any, does an adult have to the parents who abused him as a child, now that they need his help?
The Situation: Kyung and his wife Gillian are in a place they never wanted to be financially. During their five years of marriage, the couple have made a string of terrible decisions and their bad spending habits are finally catching up with them. And now that they are attempting to sell the house they really could never afford, the market is not on their side, and the house needs several costly repairs. Their financial troubles could easily go away if Kyung were to make one phone call to his parents, who only live a couple of miles away in the nicest part of town. But there is no way Kyung is going to call the father who used to beat up his mother when he was a boy. He has little contact with his parents as it is, and to take their money to cover his own mistakes is just not an option, no matter how much he needs it to continue supporting his own small family.
The Problem: The day that Kyung and Gillian have the real estate agent over to their house is the day that Mae, Kyung's mother, shows up in their backyard completely naked and covered in bruises. All plans regarding the house are immediately put on hold when it is discovered that both Mae and Jin, Kyung's father, were victims of a brutal home invasion, the details of which makes it one of the most scary and horrific crimes to happen in the area in recent memory. After their release from the hospital, Mae and Jin begin living with their son, but everything that happened when Kyung was little is not so easily forgotten. Even what his parents recently went through does little to soften how he feels towards them. Despite how good Jin is with his grandson, and his willingness to help with the finances, tensions remain high, causing Kyung's previously mediocre existence to tip over towards chaotic.
Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set in the present day New England area. The town where Kyung and his family live is the small community of Marlboro, which is near Boston. Kyung is the son of Jin and Mae Cho, two immigrants from South Korea who moved to the U.S. when Kyung was only four. After obtaining his Ph.D, his father became a professor in the U.S, bringing his wife and child with him. It is revealed fairly early on in the novel that Jin used to abuse Mae, who in turn would abuse Kyung. The abuse is a major factor as to why Kyung is the way he is: cynical, a bit aimless, bitter, judgmental, and generally unsatisfied with his life, even though he has a wife, child, job, and home. Kyung can never forget what his parent's did, which makes their presence in his house even more uncomfortable than most family gatherings tend to be anyway. Kyung oscillates between wanting revenge on the people who committed these horrible crimes against his parents, and wanting said parents to be exposed for the people they really are, not for the people they pretend to be. But almost as soon as Mae shows up in his backyard, Kyung cannot seem to do anything right, making himself the one everyone wants to shut out of their lives.
My Verdict: This is a story. Initially I was afraid that reading about the abuse and the home invasion would often be too uncomfortable, and while it wasn't exactly easy, Yun describes the events in such a way that made me want to know more. Not more details necessarily, but just more about the history of the Cho family, and what really happened in their house, and what caused them to act the way they did, and they way they still do. There is tension from the first page, with Kyung and Gillian confronting the situation with their finances. And then Mae shows up, and the tension continues to build as more information is brought to the reader, and to the different characters. With Kyung trapped between the awful events of the past and terrible events of the present, Yun is able to depict how all of that negative energy has nowhere to go, except onto the people close to him. I would be willing to call this a literary thriller, because even with the third person narrator, the reader has access to Kyung's thoughts, and the story keeps the reader guessing as to what really happened, even when we already know who committed the crimes.
Favorite Moment: When Kyung (drunkenly) stands up before the entire family and says exactly what everyone pretends didn't happen.
Favorite Character: Gillian's father Connie is probably the most level-headed and helpful person throughout the entire novel. He may not care all that much for Kyung as a son-in-law, but he makes sure everyone does what they are supposed to and is willing to help his in-laws as much as he can. He even keeps Kyung from doing some stupid stuff, and tries to keep him from doing others.
Recommended Reading: I actually recommend The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. It is a different kind of novel, sure, but the sense of suspense was close to the same, at least for me. And both books gives the reader a chance to be in the head of a main character who can't seem to do anything right.