Forgotten Country

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Title: Forgotten Country
Author: Catherine Chung
Pages: 293
Genre: Fiction
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.


Harvee said...

I'd love to read this book for the Immigration Reading Challenge!

Mrs Q Book Addict said...

I received this one this week. I can't wait to read this one.

Jenna said...

Such a passionate and thorough review! I hadn't heard of this one before, but I'm definitely interested in reading it now. I love stories that have an intense emotional effect.

Ti said...

Sometimes when I read stories like this one I feel as if I've read them all before, but the mention of folk stories piqued my interest.

Reads4Pleasure said...

Wonderful review. Definitely adding this to my TBR list.

Zibilee said...

This sounds like an incredible book with several different issues worked into it's plot. I have a feeling that I would love this one, and really got a lot out of your review. It was sensitive and perceptive, and made me realize that I must look for this book!

Booksnyc said...

I haven't heard about this one before but as Harvee points out, it is perfect for the Immigrant Stories Challenge! Thanks for the review!

bermudaonion said...

It does sound like this explores all kinds of issues. What a heartbreaking story!

Peppermint Ph.D. said...

I felt Forgotten Country was one of the most intense and complex family stories I've ever read. So much so that it affected me deeply...I wasn't always happy with it but mostly that disappointment came from wanting to know more. Enjoyed your review :)

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