Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Forgotten Country

10. Forgotten Country by Catherine Chung




Rarely have I ever thought that a book and cover go so well together. The beautiful geometric patterns laid over the light pink flowers express the essence of this exquisite novel very fittingly. It incorporates both the math that occupies the mind and studies of the main character and the garden that she and her family attempt, and fail, to cultivate both literally and metaphorically.

Korean-American debut author Catherine Chung begins, "The year that Hannah disappeared, the first frost came early, killing everything in the garden." That sentence embodies the cyclical garden imagery and mathematical precision of language that permeate the novel, and again, are also found on the cover. The main character, Janie or Jeehyun is tasked with finding her errant younger sister Hannah, or Haejin, who chooses to abandon her family without a trace just before their father is diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Janie reflects on Hannah's actions leading up to her disappearance and the many layers of memories that have formed her understanding of herself and Hannah, and particularly their mixed Korean and American identities. Included are her knowledge of her parents' histories and the Korean folktales that the sisters have been told over and over, and acted out in play-pretend games as children. The importance and also the transience of memory is emphasized repeatedly, as it becomes evident that not all memories are what they seem. This theme compels me to compare Chung to Julian Barnes as well as to the other Korean-American and Asian-American authors with whom her work appears to have more in common on the surface.

Chung's prose is clean and so well-organized that the multiple time frames in Janie's memory create little confusion. In addition, her delicate language is a pleasure to absorb. My only complaint would be her tendency to be understated, and not pursue events that appear problematic, such as a principal ordering the sisters to change their names from Korean to American, and fleeting references to an abusive boyfriend and even parental abuse.

Where Chung particularly succeeds is in her nuanced portrait of a family, where everyone is both culpable and redeemable. Although she uses elements of Korean culture to illustrate her points, which add interest and dimension to the story, the novel is really a universal tale about identity and our ability to dictate our own path, which can be shaped as we choose from the disparate values in our families and societies.

I strongly recommend Forgotten Country to those who enjoy novels about families and those who like to think about issues such as identity and meaning, especially with regard to traditional vs. newfangled values. Anyone who simply likes to savor beautifully crafted language will also be at home within the permeable or "forgotten" boundaries of Chung's novel.