Summary (From Goodreads):
Why should a man care for his parents when they failed to take care of him as a child?
One of The Millions’ Most Anticipated Books of the Year (Selected by Edan Lepucki)
Kyung Cho is a young father burdened by a house he can’t afford. For years, he and his wife, Gillian, have lived beyond their means. Now their debts and bad decisions are catching up with them, and Kyung is anxious for his family’s future.
A few miles away, his parents, Jin and Mae, live in the town’s most exclusive neighborhood, surrounded by the material comforts that Kyung desires for his wife and son. Growing up, they gave him every possible advantage—private tutors, expensive hobbies—but they never showed him kindness. Kyung can hardly bear to see them now, much less ask for their help. Yet when an act of violence leaves Jin and Mae unable to live on their own, the dynamic suddenly changes, and he’s compelled to take them in. For the first time in years, the Chos find themselves living under the same roof. Tensions quickly mount as Kyung’s proximity to his parents forces old feelings of guilt and anger to the surface, along with a terrible and persistent question: how can he ever be a good husband, father, and son when he never knew affection as a child?
As Shelter veers swiftly toward its startling conclusion, Jung Yun leads us through dark and violent territory, where, unexpectedly, the Chos discover hope. Shelter is a masterfully crafted debut novel that asks what it means to provide for one’s family and, in answer, delivers a story as riveting as it is profound.
Oh, how I loved this book! It reminded me of everything that I love about literary fiction with messed up family dynamics at its core. The book bristles with a frenzied, unsettling energy, with unhappy people, unhappy marriages and .. uneasy silences. At the heart of this story is Kyung, a Korean-American, estranged from his parents, and who has maintained a distance from them for over two decades and kept contact to a bare minimum though they stay only a few miles apart. But a brutal robbery and attack at his parents’ home changes everything – his father is left bruised with a broken arm and his mother and their housekeeper are raped. Overnight, Kyung’s perfect facade of keeping up appearances of a normal family is shattered as he is forced to confront the fact that he has to step into the responsibilities of a son, something he has tried to stay away from for years.
Kyung is conflicted, confused and angered by the strange, changed situation. He is bewildered with Jin’s closeness to his grandson, and wonders why he never had the same equation with Kyung. He is frustrated with Mae’s aloofness with Kyung, even after all these years, and even more puzzled to see Jin and Mae distant with each other. He is surprised to see Mae not acting like a subordinate to his dad anymore. He wonders what has he missed and doesnt know how to deal with everything – his parents, the Korean Church folk who take over his home and seem to do a better job of “caring” for his parents, his wife Gillian, who tries to be “understanding” of Kyung’s dilemma, but for all of her pop psych talk and self help advice, doesnt really “get it”. She doesnt get why he is rigid about not “forgiving” his parents. Why he is unable to move on. Or maybe Kyung does a bad job of explaining it. Because he is not able to explain it to himself in the first place. And Kyung feels, Gillian is swayed by his dad’s financial help as a compensation for all their trouble, and that makes him feel more uncomfortable with everything.
I think it is not until I finished the book did I fully appreciate how fitting and contextually loaded the title of the book is. It means so many things, and in some ways, nothing; atleast for Kyung. What is Shelter supposed to mean or signify anyway? A roof over your head to give you a sense of security? Well, Gillian and Kyung’s current home has brought nothing but constant financial burden through mortgages and bad loans, that they have always tried to play catch up with. Is shelter supposed to remind you of your roots, the first safe place that you look back and think of with fondness? Well, if you ask Kyung, that can’t be right either. The only memories he has of his parents’ place is his dad hitting his mom and his mom in turn hitting him as a means of taking out her frustrations of being trapped in a bad marriage in a new country. Is it meant to be a getaway vacation home for a family to enjoy and destress? Well, Kyung’s dad does have one in New Orleans, but as it turns out, Mae lost interest in that home ages ago, once she finished playing her role as an interior decorator and couldnt pretty up the place anymore. But the current Mae is different, changed by the recent events. She can’t bear to stay here in or near her current house any longer and wants a change in environment. Gillian and Kyung’s in laws are thrilled with the idea, and go along with Kyung’s parents.. but Kyung can’t stand the idea of travelling with everyone and making forced conversation. However, he does join them later when he cannot delay it anymore. What happens next is an outburst from Kyung, of pent-up grievances and complaints, with tragic and irreversible consequences.
I finished this book a few days ago but I couldnt immediately type down a review. And I feel like there is so much more that I want to say, but I am not able to, maybe because I have delayed the review a bit, so I feel like there is so much of the “immediate reactions” to the book that I am not able to recall entirely and put it in words. But I will say this – it was a wonderful read with some characters you would care about and wish that their lives turned out differently. There were a few things that I didnt like much though. Kyung ends up doing something impulsively and I just felt that.. that was an unnecessary add-on to the story.. because it is something irrelevant and independent of Kyung’s circumstances, or atleast that is how I judge it. So Kyung lost some major sympathy points from me there. Okay, to Yun’s credit, she didnt justify or “explain” it, but I guess I was so invested in Kyung’s hard-done-by arc, that, this kind of burst the bubble for me. Another thing I didnt like is the book’s final moments. I did get and appreciate the thought behind it, but I found it a bit schmaltzy rather than impactful. All this doesnt dilute the overall effect of the book though, and I guess the best part of this story is the ample room for grey. Do let me know what you think of this book if you get around to reading it .. maybe you are going to see the Chos differently.
*Note: I received this ARC from the publisher via the Goodreads giveaway programme. Thank you Picador!*