by Catherine Chung
Release Date: March 1, 2012
Paperback (review copy)
From the back cover:
On the night Janie waits for her sister, Hannah, to be born, her grandmother tells her a story: Since the Japanese occupation of Korea, their family has lost a daughter in every generation, so Janie is charged with keeping Hannah safe. Years later, when Hannah inexplicably cuts all ties and disappears, Janie embarks on a mission to find her sister and finally uncover the truths beneath her family’s painful legacy. Weaving Korean folklore within a modern narrative of immigration and identity, Forgotten Country is a fierce exploration of the inevitability of loss, the conflict between obligation and freedom, and a family struggling to find their way out of silence and back to one another.
This is Catherine Chung’s first novel, and it is a doozy.
Forgotten Country tells the story of a family divided by secrets, misunderstandings, and feelings left unspoken. Janie tells the story, combining childhood memories, Korean history, and traditional Korean folklore in an attempt to unravel the mysteries of her family and figure out how and why she and her sister have grown so far apart. In addition to dealing with Hannah’s separation from the family, Janie and her parents are also trying to come to terms with her father’s terminal cancer and all of the nastiness that it brings.
This was a very difficult book for me to read, emotionally–it’s full of so much pain, heartbreak, illness, and death. A good bit of the psychological pain in Janie’s family could have been alleviated if they all weren’t so stubborn, too, so I found myself extremely frustrated by their silence and secrets during painful situations. (Although I also understand that their silence had a lot to do with their traditional Korean culture, I’m not sure that excuses it.) Everyone has their secrets, but at what point does keeping those secrets become more important than the relationships between loved ones? It was also very difficult for me to read about Janie’s father’s battle with cancer–that horrible, stigmatizing disease took the life of one of my favorite people, and reliving the experience through Forgotten Country was very hard. There were times when I had to put the book down and go do something else because I just didn’t want to think about it anymore.
For all the depressing stuff in this book, though, there are many pleasant things to balance the story out–the love shared between family members even when they don’t like each other very much, the special kind of love shared between Janie’s parents, Janie’s father’s love for his daughters, forgiveness, redemption, lessons learned, and wonderful Korean folktales. I particularly liked reading about Janie’s walks with her father, and the folktales told by her mother. I think Chung did a good job of balancing the sober realities that come with life and the good things in life that make it all worth it. Also, I am no stranger to sibling rivalry, and while Janie and Hannah frustrated me beyond belief, they also made me realize how ridiculous my sister and I were with one another growing up, and how grateful I am that we’re friends now and have gotten past all that ridiculousness.
The only major element of the story that I think could have been improved upon was Hannah–I think too little was said about her choice to disappear and distance herself from her family, and I think her character could have been a little more developed. I understood her frustrations, I mostly understood her need to be independent from her family for a while, and I understood the one major issue she had with Janie (even though it was the result of yet another misunderstanding), but Hannah’s story and her character weren’t entirely convincing. I don’t think enough was said about who she was and why she made certain decisions. Hannah was left as a bit of an enigma.
While there are some elements of the story that I wish Chung would have elaborated on further, overall this was a good book. The majority of the characters and the storyline were well-written and believable, and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys literary fiction, or to anyone who would like to learn a bit about Korean history, folklore, culture, and traditions.
(To learn more about Catherine Chung, please visit her official website.)
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