A Booklist Top 10 First Novels of 2012 pick
A Bookpage Best Books of 2012 pick
“A richly emotional portrait of a family that had me spellbound from page one.”—Cheryl Strayed, bestselling author of Wild
The night before Janie’s sister, Hannah, is born, her grandmother tells her a story: Since the Japanese occupation of Korea, their family has lost a daughter in every generation, and Janie is told to keep Hannah safe. Years later, when Hannah inexplicably cuts all ties and disappears, Janie goes to find her. Thus begins a journey that will force her to confront her family’s painful silence, the truth behind her parents’ sudden move to America twenty years earlier, and her own conflicted feelings toward Hannah.
The year that Hannah disappeared, the first frost came early, killing everything in the garden. It took the cantaloupe and the tomatoes; the leaves of lettuce turned brittle and snapped. Even the kale withered and died. In front, the wine- colored roses froze, powdered gray with the cold, like silk ﬂowers in an attic covered with dust. My father and I had planted the garden over several weekends, and tended it carefully. Then it had overgrown itself, the tomatoes winding themselves up the wall of our house and stretching out to span the distance to the fence. After the frost we’d left it all winter without trimming anything back. Now we stood on the lawn, surveying the ruin, tracking damp patches of ground wherever we stepped.
“We’re selling the house,” my father said, blowing warm air on his hands.
“That makes sense,” I said, but it felt suddenly difﬁcult to breathe. My parents had told me they were going back to Korea, so I’d known selling our house was a possibility, but I hadn’t expected it.
“We’re going to have to clean this up,” my father said, gesturing at the garden.
“It’s cold,” I said. “Let’s go inside.”
He nodded. The tendons in his neck were taut. His breath steamed slowly around his face. Everything was inside out, or at least the cold had turned the insides of things visible. The green tomatoes were now gray and translucent, their skins puckered at the stems, still hanging from their frozen vines. “We want you to ﬁnd Hannah,” he said.
“When are you leaving?” I asked.
“As soon as possible,” my father said.
“I want to go with you.”
My father shook his head. “Find your sister,” he said. He had blamed me after the initial panic, when we discovered that Hannah hadn’t been abducted or killed, but had simply left without telling us, without leaving us a way to contact her. I was her older sister, living in the same city. He thought I should have seen it coming.
When I moved back home for the summer, my father grilled me about her. He wanted to know everything about the months prior to her departure: what she had looked like, what she had said. What I had noticed: why I hadn’t noticed more. He was already sick then, but didn’t know it yet. I wonder if Hannah would have been able to pick up and leave like that if she had known.
Inside, we made tea and sat at our kitchen table, waiting for my mother to come down. My father’s hands relaxed on the table, his ﬁngers eased into a slight curl around his mug. They looked fragile against the smooth blue ceramic, his veins raised thick and soft. For a moment I wanted to cover his hands with mine, even though they had always looked like that.
Growing up, Hannah and I worried we’d inherit those veins, huge and tinged blue. It was true that my father’s body had pulled into itself in the last couple of years so that his bones protruded, but his eyes were still sharp and discerning, and his hands were the same hands that had built this table, the same hands that refused to let anything go.
“I want to go with you when you go to Korea,” I said.
My father grimaced. “It’s more important that you ﬁnd Hannah. You need to bring her home.”
“I can’t do that.”
“She’s your only sister.”
“She’s a brat.”
My mother’s footsteps sounded down the stairs, and together we looked toward the hallway. My father tilted his head and called out, “We’re in the kitchen!” He leaned forward and took my hand in his. It was warm. He whispered, “Don’t upset her.”
One word about Hannah was enough to make my mother dissolve into tears for at least an hour. “Dissolve” was not too strong a word. When my mother wept, the whole world vanished. My father and I ceased to exist, and even Hannah’s shadowy ﬁgure was obscured. This could happen anywhere, at any time— even in public. At ﬁrst I wondered how my mother could sustain such anxiety, how one body could hold it all. Then I realized it was a question of density.
There’s a theorem in mathematics that says if you take something the size of an onion and cut it into small enough pieces, you can take those pieces and construct something larger than the sun. In those ﬁrst months after Hannah went missing, we learned to be careful around my mother. We had no past. Everything was off limits. Coming home was entering oblivion— my father was obsessed with my last conversations with Hannah, and my mother resolutely surrounded herself with silence. So when she came padding into the kitchen, I slapped a smile onto my face, same as my father.
To be honest, I never really understood what Hannah had against my parents. Sure they’d made mistakes, but nothing we shouldn’t be able to get over. They had tried their best. When Hannah left for college in Chicago, I was already in my junior year at the University of Michigan. My dorm was a forty-ﬁve-minute drive from our house, and I came home every other weekend to visit. The summer before Hannah left for school, she broke curfew nearly every night. At ﬁrst my parents waited up for her. As the summer wore on, they waited until morning to pound on her door. How she slept through all that pounding, I’ll never know. I woke up after two seconds of it. I’d jump into the shower to drown out the noise. Besides, I knew what came next. After several minutes my father would call,“I’m coming in!” and pick her lock open with a toothpick. Then my parents would stand over Hannah’s deﬁantly sleeping body, prodding her shoulders to wake her up. And Hannah would turn, scowling, hugging her pillow over her head.
“Let me sleep,” she murmured. “Go away.”
In the end it was her unwillingness to engage that defeated my parents. Even when she was awake she didn’t argue, a polite little smile frozen to her face. “I got into college, what more do you want from me?” she asked at breakfast one morning after a late night out.
My mother unleashed a tirade about gratitude, ﬁlial duty, and decency. “I guess I just don’t agree,” Hannah said, as if there was nothing more to say.
hen she left for college she wouldn’t even let my parents drive her. She took her own beat-up Corolla packed full of clothes and books and music. “I don’t need anything else,” she said when my parents insisted on going with her. “I’ll be ﬁ ne.”
My mother cried the day Hannah left, but Hannah pulled away. “I’ll call you when I get there,” she mumbled, shaking my father’s hand.Then she got into her car and pulled the door shut. My parents and I stood on the driveway, watching her. She started the car and didn’t look back, but opened the window and waved once. Then her arm relaxed as though all the good- byes she had to make were taken care of, and she let her arm hang limply out the window as she drove away.
You’ll never understand,” she said the last time we came home together for Thanksgiving. “They were useless as parents— when did they give us what we needed?” The sleeves of her red shirt were pulled over her hands; her thumbs beginning to wear familiar holes along the seams.
“They gave us food,” I said. “They gave us water, shelter, life.”
“Whatever.” Hannah waved those things away. “Big deal.”
I’m not sure when things changed for her, but until Hannah forgot how to speak Korean, we had spent hours pretending to be our parents in their youth: it had been the best and deepest of mysteries to us. Long ago, my father used to jump trains as they passed. He was very poor and lived in the mountains: walking to school took over an hour. If there was a train going by he jumped on and took it as far as he could and jumped off. He had shown us the scar on his hand from a particularly bad fall.
Hannah and I pretended that our swing set, which our father had built for us, was a train. We ran at the swings, yelling, “We have to catch this one if we’re going to make it on time!”
Sometimes Hannah missed the swing on purpose. “Give me your hand!” I yelled, pulling her along until she leaped up. “That was a close call,” we said to each other, wiping our brows. We didn’t know then that wiping your brow meant that you’d been sweating. We had just seen movie actors do it after tense situations, and it felt grown-up and dramatic. Then we’d swing, standing up, until I cried, “It’s time to jump! Clear the track!” and off we leaped, rolling into the grass.
Sometimes we reenacted our father’s injury by smearing berry juice on Hannah’s hand. “It hurts!” she said.
I peered at it worriedly. “I think it’s going to leave a scar.”
Other days, we played the Dead Auntie game. My mother’s sister had died when my mother was still a child. When we still lived in Korea, we followed our parents up the mountains to the graves of our ancestors to offer them food and wine on the day of the harvest moon, and I wondered why we left my aunt’s burial mound unattended. In front of the other graves we shouted out our names.
“Grandfather, we are here! Haejini and Jeehyuni! We are saying hello!”
We bowed to our grandparents, then to their parents, then to the seven generations of ancestors buried on that mountain.
The path to my aunt’s burial mound was overgrown, full of snakes and biting insects. We did not bow in front of her grave, or call out our names. My mother quietly trimmed the grass that grew over the mound with her long curved blade, chanting the Buddha’s name.
Once Hannah cried out exuberantly, “Auntie, we’ve come to visit you!” and my mother knelt and slapped her in the face. After that we were not allowed to visit that grave, but waited for my parents at the edge of the path and played among the trees that shaded the mountain, tapping long sticks on the ground to keep the snakes away. Hannah swore she saw a woman following them once, picking her way through the overgrown path, her long white dress catching on the brush underneath and snagging on the trees around her. Hannah swore she heard her singing as she braided her long black hair.
The adults would never tell us how our auntie had died. But alone, we pretended I was Auntie, and Hannah was our mother. Sometimes we switched roles so I could play the bad guys who killed her, or the doctor who diagnosed her with a fatal disease. We would actually weep as we played this game, imagining my mother’s family at the news that our auntie was dead. I always played our auntie brave, never giving up hope to the very last, never betraying national secrets to the North Korean spies, always standing up for what she believed in and protecting those she loved.
The year I became a math major, Hannah and I started growing apart. She never understood my chosen ﬁeld, and considered it a defection to my father’s fortress of reason and logic.
“You can’t even divide up a bill,” she said. “You’re horrible with numbers.”
I tried to tell her about complex and imaginary numbers, primes and transcendentals, numbers with families and personalities, but she rolled her eyes.
“I don’t know how you can think any of that is important,” she said. She was studying to become a biologist, deep in the gunk of life and committed to saving the earth, and could see no beauty in what I did.
But math had come with me from Korea to America, and its familiarity had pulled me through those ﬁrst bewildering years. I liked its solidity, the possibility of discovering a truth around which no further argument need swirl. And Hannah was right to feel left behind, maybe even betrayed. Because something changed between my father and me when I started talking shop with him.
My father had always wanted a son. We women were unreliable creatures, prone to ﬁts of emotion and ﬂights from logic that generally ended with him at the receiving end of a pointed ﬁnger. “Yes!” he’d said, when I told him I’d decided to study math. He reached out his hand and said, “Shake!” While he pumped my hand up and down, he said, “Math lasts.”
One day in the summer after my sophomore year of college, my father and I tried to construct the seventeen-gon with a straightedge and compass. As we talked, something in him eased up and fell away. He laughed, made jokes about our family in mathematical terminology. When we talked math, the words ﬂowed, pure and easy. Here were rules we could both abide by, here was a language that was eloquent, and spoke to us about the world.
Later, we sat in our backyard going over what I thought at the time was a particularly complex proof. My mother’s roses were in bloom at the edge of our lawn, and we could smell them faintly, their perfume drifting over on the occasional breeze. A beetle ﬂew onto the picnic table and landed on our paper.
“Do you see this beetle?” my father said, pointing at its shiny back with his pencil. “Just think— it’s mathematical fact! Even the tiniest insect has as many points on its back as the entire universe.”
He tapped his pencil by the beetle several times. “Life is like that,” he mused. “Think about it! The tiniest insect contains inﬁnity on its back: each life contains as much meaning as all of history.” Then he leaned forward and blew a quick, sharp breath on the beetle, which unfolded tiny translucent wings, lifted into the wind, and ﬂew away.
I called Hannah that night. She was spending the summer in Chicago. I said, “Who knew? Dad’s getting mushy.” I felt like a traitor as soon as I said it, but I had to put the sarcastic note in to get her to listen.
“Not interested,” she said.
Hannah had called me a couple days before she disappeared, crying because the baby of a woman she worked with had died the night before. I’d suddenly hit a wall in my dissertation, and when Hannah called I hadn’t slept for days, and had spent the morning pacing, swiping at a blackboard I had put up in my living room.
“He’s dead,” Hannah wept as soon as I answered the phone.
“The baby,” Hannah sobbed.
“Marjorie’s, a woman from work.” A wave of relief passed over me. “Jesus Christ,” I said. “Are you trying to scare me to death?” “Her neighbor’s children threw her baby out the window while she was at work.”
“Holy shit,” I said. “Who was watching it?”
“How’s your friend?”
There was a sharp intake of breath. “How do you think?” And then a pause. “I’m not really close to her. I tried to ﬁnd her phone number, but it’s not listed.” “Oh, Hannah, that’s awful,” I said, and wrote What the fuck? on my blackboard, quietly so she couldn’t hear the chalk.
On cue, Hannah started to cry again.
“Stop,” I said. She didn’t even know these people.
“They were only twelve years old,” she said. “I don’t know how to deal with this.”
I didn’t respond, outraged somehow that she could take this woman’s tragedy and try to make it personal. As though the world hurt her in particular and no one else. Some people have real problems, I wanted to say. That woman whose baby died, she has problems.
“Hannah, please don’t cry,” I said, but that only made her cry harder. I waited for her to stop. I could think of nothing to say that would help.
A couple months after Hannah disappeared, the kids who had thrown the baby out the window went on trial. I followed the case out of some perverse loyalty. It turned out Marjorie wasn’t a colleague of Hannah’s, but a cleaning lady who worked in her building. She lived not in Hannah’s trendy North Side neighborhood but in one of the South Side housing projects.
Her surviving son’s name was Kevin. He was ten years old. The neighbor’s kids had been giving him trouble for some time. The lock on his door had been broken for weeks, and they had come to riﬂe through the things in his house, to eat his mother’s food. When they came he was sitting on the sofa watching cartoons; his baby brother was in his lap.
Roadrunner was outwitting Wile E. Coyote, whose Acme mail- order products never quite got the job done. Boulders, buildings, pianos hung suspended in air a beat too long. Roadrunner zoomed fearlessly beneath impending doom, but Wile E. Coyote, always too slow, was ﬂattened on the desert landscape.
That day his neighbors asked Kevin for candy. They pulled his baby brother out of his lap and pushed him. He began to cry, but he had no candy. So they held his brother, dangling him by his legs out the window. His brother loved it, gurgled with laughter, held seventeen stories above the ground.
Kevin’s eyes met the boys’ who held his little brother. There was no sound when the boys let go. Through the open window they saw an empty sky.
Kevin turned and ran out the door of his apartment. His feet pounded one hundred separate steps. He didn’t know about the laws of gravity or physics. He imagined his brother hung suspended in the air. He thought if he could just make it down in time, he could catch his little brother before he hit. He ran down the stairs and out the door: his gaze aimed at the sky, his arms outstretched.
After the trial, I couldn’t sleep at night. I stopped working on my dissertation and stopped answering phone calls from my friends. I stayed up thinking how I should have done things differently. When Hannah called, I should have taken a movie over to her place, and some tea, and told her our old jokes until she laughed. At night I should have lain in bed next to her and stuck my feet between her legs and asked if she remembered how mad she used to get when I did that. I should have wrapped my arms around her and talked about places we’d lived and games we had played until she was wrapped up in the comfort of who we used to be. Where was she? I wondered. In those days I lost weight and watched my parents suffer. I should have spent that night with her, I thought. If I could have done it differently, I wouldn’t, no matter what, have said nothing and let her go.
“Gorgeous . . . a heartbreaking story about sisters, family, and keeping traditions alive.”
“Luminous and surprising . . . [Chung’s] voice is fresh, her material rich, and Forgotten Country is an impressive, memorable debut.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“[A] lovely, elegiac novel . . . both heartbreaking and redemptive.”
— The Boston Globe
"Chung indelibly portrays a Korea viciously divided but ever bound to history, myth, and hope."
—O, The Oprah Magazine
“The unflinchingly honest examination of grief, anger, familial obligation, and love gives the novel a compelling emotional core.”
—The New Yorker
“[Chung] is sensitive to the spontaneous combustibility of sisterly relations… [her] prose is crisp and unfussy.”
—The New York Times
“Forgotten Country is often wrenching, but Chung's graceful writing -- replete as it is with delicately rendered family affections, snippets of Korean folklore and an unerring sense of storytelling -- lifts the tragedies into the realm of lovely melancholia. The pain Janie feels with all of her discoveries isn't enviable, but the peace that the hard-swallowed wisdom brings her is touching and true.”
“A spare, haunting tale of loss, yearning and discovery.”
“An inexpressibly beautiful story…Chung does a masterful job of weaving the past with the present, incorporating mythology and memory in ways that both captivate and haunt…If you read one novel this spring, let it be Forgotten Country. I cannot overstate the joy this book brings.”
“In this beautiful debut novel…Woven with tender reflections, sharp renderings of isolation, and beautiful prose…Chung simultaneously shines light on the violence of Korean history, the chill of American xenophobia, and the impossibility of home in either country.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Moving among emotions, from reserved to exuberant and from easy joy all the way to devastating pain and loss, Chung’s superb debut examines the twin hearts of cruelty and compassion between sisters in particular and family in general…This elegantly written, stunningly powerful, simply masterful first novel should earn Chung many fans, especially among those who enjoy Amy Tan, Eugenia Kim, Lisa See, and Chang-Rae Lee.”
—Booklist (starred review)
“Chung delves with aching honesty and beauty into large, difficult questions—the strength and limits of family, the definition of home, the boundaries (or lack thereof) between duty and love—within the context of a Korean experience. Chung’s limpid prose matches her emotional intelligence.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Beautiful…a masterful exploration of generational tensions within a Korean family on two continents…Chung is a remarkable writer, willing to dig fearlessly under her characters’ surface motivations. Her style is elegant but never clinical, and her judicious use of Korean folktales amplifies the themes of sacrifice, duty and expectation.”
“Forgotten Country is a remarkable debut novel, one that profoundly explores our connections to family, friends, and homeland.”
“It is a rare novel -- debut or otherwise -- that can sing at once with such tenderness and ferocity, with such intense feeling and exquisite restraint. Forgotten Country is just that book, poetically crafted, shimmering with hard-won emotion, and wholly absorbing. A superb performance.”
—Chang-rae Lee, author of The Surrednered
“A heartbreaking debut novel that will leave you quietly shattered in its wake. Forgotten Country is an exquisitely rendered account of a Korean immigrant family divided by two sisters, two countries and a curse that spans generations. Catherine Chung has written a haunting meditation on family loyalty and the lingering legacy of war.”
—Julie Otsuka, author of The Buddha in the Attic
“Catherine Chung's wonderful first novel is a moving and deeply personal story of a family caught between two very different countries and very different lives.”
—Alison Lurie, author of Foreign Affairs
“Catherine Chung is a writer whose first novel I've been waiting for, and her debut, Forgotten Country, more than fulfills what I hoped for---a boldly imagined novel of Korea and America, of a curse between sisters and a family trying to outrun a war that will not let them go. Chillingly beautiful and magnetic, unforgettable.”
—Alexander Chee, author of Edinburgh
"A riveting, brutal portrait of two sisters in crisis, Catherine Chung's unforgettable debut is a work of enormous talent and heart. Written with compassion and insight, Forgotten Country examines the unspoken complexities of familial love and forgiveness, loyalty and betrayal, and renders an indelible, haunting image of Korea, past and present."
–Kate Walbert, author of A Short History of Women
“I was left utterly devastated by the wonder and heartbreak captured in these pages. Forgotten Country is overflowing with folktales and family secrets, with American and Korean traditions, with haunting prose and mathematical beauty. Here is a book to cherish, and to celebrate. When I finished the last page I made a promise to myself to be more fearless and fierce with my love; it's that kind of book.”
—Justin Torres, author of We the Animals
Letters to Home
Every family has secrets. Ours was an aunt I'd never met, never even knew existed until one day forty years after she disappeared, she sent us a letter. She was alive, she told us: she'd gotten married, had children, thought of her brothers and sisters and deceased parents often. How was everyone, she asked. What had happened in our lives? And could we send pictures?
My aunt was a college student in Seoul when she went missing some time after the Korean War. The North Koreans had been kidnapping people for several years, and one night they raided her dorm. The next morning my aunt and a handful of other girls were gone. Even now, over ten years after I found out about her, this is almost all I know.
As a child, my parents' history had always seemed far away and long ago. This made it all the more mysterious, and Korea itself had its own pull on my imagination, a place so sorely missed by them, which had the power to transform them into happier, more comfortable people. Even though I hadn't been born there like my brother, I still learned the lesson immigrants must learn: how heavy the lost life weighs in the new one.
The revelation of my aunt's existence made clear how much had been lost that I didn't even know, how much of my own history was hidden to me. The magnitude still takes my breath away. Korea was one country when my parents were born into it. And then it split into two, and the two halves took drastically different turns. My aunt was taken to the other side in an act of violence, and she survived. She lived a whole life.
My family never spoke of my aunt because for a long time it was forbidden. It was dangerous to have relatives in North Korea, even if they'd been kidnapped against their will. It seems to me this must have been the hardest loss: the right to lay claim to those you love. Even though everyone had family on the other side, if you spoke of them openly, there could be terrible consequences. And so until recently, the whole country bore this in silence. They missed their lost ones quietly. And then my aunt wrote a letter, reaching out to us across the expanse of time and separation. Forgotten Country is a book about that expanse, and the voiceless longing to reach across it, and meet.
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