February 3, 2012 10:22 pm

Darkness and the divide

This powerful debut collection takes an unflinching look at the reality of life in Korea

Drifting House, by Krys Lee,
Faber, RRP£12.99, 256 pages

 

Things have been going well for South Korea. Its economy is currently ranked 15th in the world; the Hyundai Elantra beat the Honda Civic in Consumer Reports ratings, while LG and Samsung have become world leaders in consumer electronics. Even the environment in Seoul has been improved, due to Cheonggyecheon, a stream restored in 2005 to flow through the city.

On the other hand, the suicide rate in 2008 was 26 per 100,000 – the highest in the industrialised world. Despite a low birth rate, one in 200 Korean children is adopted by citizens from other nations. And, of course, across the 38th parallel, there lies the familiar unfamiliarity – the sister country where they speak the same language but live in a world only George Orwell would recognise.

In her powerful debut collection, Drifting House, Korean-American author Krys Lee plumbs the darkness on both sides of this divided nation. Indeed, an alternate title for this volume of nine stories might have been “Koreans in Trouble”; these are people in dire straits – be it a father who loses his job, his family and his sanity, or a young girl with an incarcerated mother. The stories – some set 50 years ago, others in the present day – are steeped in Korean culture, history and food. Even though Lee employs certain tropes familiar to immigrant-lit (sacrifice and survival, identity and assimilation), hers is still a unique approach, such as in “A Temporary Marriage”, where a spurned Korean wife migrates to California and agrees to a marriage in order to reclaim her kidnapped daughter.

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The title story, “Drifting House”, is the standout tale in this collection. It is also the shortest – though its brevity only reinforces the intelligent economy of Lee’s words. It begins with a certain poetic directness: “The day the siblings left to find their mother, snow devoured the northern mining town.” Through the bitter cold, two little boys and a toddler girl search for their mother, who abandoned them in pursuit of food. This may seem unlikely until you realise where they are: North Korea.

The oldest, who is carrying his crippled sister, soon realises he cannot complete the arduous journey to China with her in tow. Instead of leaving her to starve, he makes what he considers a humane choice – choking her to death.

For many, this would be quite enough emotional heft for one story. But Lee isn’t interested in shock for shock’s sake – she’s more concerned with the consequences of our actions. The rest of this tragic tale deals with fallout from this decision, not only for these characters but for generations beyond.

Drifting House doesn’t go down easily. Indeed, there are moments when Lee might have let in some slivers of light, rather than shroud us in blackness. “A Small Sorrow” takes place in 1988 and, although a time of political upheaval, Lee makes no mention, for example, of the summer Olympics held that year in Seoul, which brought great hope and pride to the nation. Sometimes the sadness of her characters feels so pervasive that we question why they even bother to go on.

And yet they do, and perhaps that is the author’s point: we struggle, we live, we persevere. We are Koreans, and we know all about suffering. By showing these authentic, everyday people at dramatic and pivotal moments, Krys Lee strips them to the core of their humanity. Her vision is a solemn one, but an important one too.

Sung J Woo is author of ‘Everything Asian’ (St Martin’s Press)

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