Parents look after you when you’re young, and you return the favour when they get older. That’s how it goes, isn’t it? That’s the honourable thing to do. But what do you do if you parents are your tormentors? What if they’re the ones who have damaged you so much that you’re now close to the edge? It reminds me of that Philip Larkin poem, and one line from it that seems particularly pertinent to this novel: “Man hands on misery to man.” And so it goes.
Kyung Cho feels like he’s stuck in a never-ending cycle. With a young family in a house that’s speedily falling into disrepair, and debts so high that he can’t think of them without being nervous, he’s not where he thought he’d be in life. His parents live close by, in the wealthier part of the suburbs, a constant reminder of all that he’s failed to accomplish, and of all the trauma he suffered as a child. While his parents spared no expense to provide for Kyung’s childhood when it came to shelter and education, their inability to demonstrate their love scars him. Having suffered physical abuse at the hands of his mother, who in turn suffered it from her husband, the adult Kyung would be more than happy to erase all thoughts of his parents. A sudden and horrible turn of events, however, leaves his parents unable to return to their home, and Kyung is forced to open his to them, a choice that re-opens old wounds and sends him reeling into a self-destructive spiral.
Jung Yun’s debut is taut, masterfully woven narrative. It is skilled writing that makes you forget you’re turning pages and instead drowns you in the story so that when you return to reality it’s with a stunned disorientation and a perverse longing to return.
The story is told entirely from Kyung’s perspective. While that might skew the story slightly, Yun does an admirable job of subtly revealing the cracks in people for readers to pick up on, even if Kyung might not. Kyung’s monologue is engaging, not because he’s witty and observant, but because it’s akin to watching a car crash. Personally, I didn’t find him all that likeable but that’s not the point. Kyung can be selfish and bitter, but the point is that Yun’s more concerned with the horrible things that happen to people, and the ways in which they might regress or rehabilitate following the horrible things. The story is complex and multi-layered. Kyung, as both the victim and saviour of his mother, is tormented with mixed feelings. He despises his father for beating his wife, and his mother for refusing to escape. He was forced to live with physical and emotional abuse while joining in his parent’s charade of presenting themselves as a picture perfect family.
Kyung’s resentment for his parents, while completely justified, is sharp and poisonous – it ends up hurting him far more than he realises. Yun never takes sides – instead, she pits the damaged Kyung against the now fragile Mr and Mrs Cho, and allows the story to take its course. Whether Kyung will choose to take the steps that will allow him to heal and will allow him to begin anew with his parents is the central question. And whether he does or not – well, you’ll have to read the book to find out.