Author: Catherine Chung
Publisher: Riverhead Books (Penguin)
Pub. Date: March 1, 2012
I read the advanced praise Forgotten Country received and knew it was heart breaking, but wow, I did not expect just how intense and heartrending it turned out to be! Forgotten Country is a beautifully written novel, nonetheless, about a Korean family dealing with a crisis. It explores the very complex dynamics within that family, especially the fairly enmeshed nature of it and their intricate history.
"In college I'd taken a class on knot theory, and learned that sometimes a knot is impossible to unravel without cutting it apart. Sometimes it can't be undone. For my whole life my family had been so tightly bound that we had stifled each other just trying to breathe, just trying to go our own ways. I had worried I would never get free." (p.292)Before I say anything else, let me point out that this book is not about a missing sister and very little about one sister trying to find another. Yes, that happens, but it isn't the focus of the plot as some of the plot synopses seem to say. The story is narrated by the older of two sisters, Janie, who prior to moving to the U.S. at the age of eight was called Jeehyun. She reflects on her relationship with her parents (enmeshed) and the difference of that from how her sister, Hannah (previously Haejin), manages the parent/child relationship -- Hannah, who takes questionable and insensitive measures to escape from feelings of control and gain independence.
"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 cased 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." (p.3).Janie reflects on Korean folk stories she has been told throughout her childhood. The novel is full of these stories that have been passed down through the generations, and combined with the history provided as well, Forgotten Country provides a glimpses into the Korean culture. And Janie reflects on the impact of the family's life after moving to the U.S.
Now, in Janie's late twenties, a situation leads the family to move back to Korea despite the fact that Hannah, who has made herself disappear and not maintain contact with the family, won't necessarily be able to go with them. Janie does go to seek out her sister, but their fragile relationship has been negatively affected as well by Hannah's selfish whims. I found myself relating a little to each of the sisters and also being frustrated with each sister as well.
"I stopped pacing and faced her. I wanted to say something, but I felt what she said was true. Too many years had passed, and too much distance had accumulated between us. So we stood there in the darkness together, and I was quiet. I stood beside her and watched the moonlight skim over the water, silencing each question that was no longer my right to ask." (p.217)A little bit of Korean history is provided too, as Janie learns more about her parents and what the real reason was for their abruptly leaving Korea. The dynamics within the extended family are also complex and is another contentious factor within the family relationships.
Forgotten Country is really about the interaction of all these factors and dynamics on one family that is struggling with life issues. It's about belonging, family, what might have been, heritage, love, and loss. Though devastating at times and more of a character study, Forgotten Country is so beautifully rendered and emotionally provoking that I found myself flipping through the pages and finishing the book in one day! Highly recommended, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Forgotten Country continue to receive high accolades.