book review, short stories

Endless heartbreaks: a review of Drifting House by Krys Lee

Drifting House by Krys Lee is a spare, lyrical, heartbreaking collection of short stories about the Korean and Korean diaspora experience. The book presents a mosaic, each tile a sad portrait of unique characters and a different set of difficulties.

“At home it is impossible to see Hana in her mother’s fat folds of flesh that smother with each hug. There are only the skirts of her mother’s stiff silk hanbok scraping against her cheeks. She says, My little genius! You’re as good as any of our boys.
“Mrs. Song’s professions of love echo as loud as threats.”
Drifting House, by Krys Lee

Drifting House by Krys Lee is a spare, lyrical, heartbreaking collection of short stories about the Korean and Korean diaspora experience. The book presents a mosaic, each tile a sad portrait of unique characters and a different set of difficulties.

Lee’s stories use the political upheaval of North and South Korea and the personal upheaval of leaving your home country behind you and going somewhere new as a backdrop for heartbreak, threading ideas of ritual and tradition throughout to give her characters’ lives structure. The first story, “A Temporary Marriage,” sets the tone for the collection: Mrs. Shin saves up money for three years in order to leave Seoul and go to California, chasing after her abusive husband, who has used his money and power to abscond with their small daughter and his mistress. The story focuses not just on the difficulties Mrs. Shin has in getting the American police to take her seriously, but also on the length of time it took to gather the resources to leave South Korea, the arrangements with Mr. Rhee to create a fake marriage in order to stay in the US, and the affair she settles into with her strange false husband. The story ends with pain, heartache, and no real resolution, as messy as real life.

The collection includes several standout stories, all in the middle of the book. In “A Small Sorrow,” a forward-thinking artist couple in 1988 leave Seoul to move into a traditional house near the Demilitarized Zone that divides Korea. Eunkang thinks the move will get her husband, Seongwon, away from his many affairs without having to compromise her desire not to become like her nagging, accusing mother. She of course finds him with Mina, a girl “as long as a grain of brown rice [who] looked as if she would stay a glorious eighteen forever” (p. 130), who has come to their home to be Seongwon’s protege. She follows Mina home one day in order to confront both the girl and her own fears and failings. “Is my house your tourist attraction?” Mina asks, and Eunkang replies, “And my husband, yours?”

“The Salaryman,” perhaps the saddest of the lot, is written in a daring and well-executed second person perspective, inviting you, the reader, to live through the downfall of a young man. In a society where job-for-life was once the norm, the main character loses his job and cannot face the shame of going home to his family. He elects to become homeless instead, even as his wife asks him to come home to her and the children. Through his eyes, the reader sees the throngs of unemployed all competing for the same job, falling from grace, living in subways and parks. The main character wastes away, and even as he finds new friends and his place in the pecking order of homeless, he becomes more like an animal, losing all sense of hope, purpose, and humanity.

One of the few stories in the collection with a glimmer of hope is “The Goose Father,” about a man named Gilho who has sent his family on to live in the West and is still in Korea, making a living and sending money to help support them. He takes in a border named Wuseong, a strange, unselfconscious young man with a penchant for beauty and a pet goose with a broken wing. Even as his uneventful life continues on, he finds himself more and more drawn to Wuseong in ways he has trouble understanding. The growing attraction is shown through spare, lovely scenes, and Gilho’s palpable, confused longing is a thing of beauty itself.

The trouble with Drifting House is that it wears you down with its varied settings of sadness, its rigid traditions that break the spirits of its characters, with the death and fracturing of lives, of difficult relations between parents and children, of difficult experiences in new countries. The bleakness and gloom that are so striking in individual stories get lost in the work as a whole. A little more hope, a little more happiness, or a hint of humour would actually work to provide contrast for the sorrows of the other stories and make the collection more effective. The unrelenting hopelessness of the title story, about the flight of young siblings from North Korea, or of the plight of Jenny in “The Believer,” whose mother loses her mind and commits an unspeakable act, and who in turn commits an unspeakable act to try to heal her damaged family, become just another drop in the bucket.

A little happiness would temper this, and would perhaps provide a more poignant and truer picture of the Korea that Lee is giving us a peek into. Beautifully written though it is, Drifting House might best be read in small bites, mixed in with happier material.

Three and a half out of five blue pencils

Drifting House, by Krys Lee, published in Canada by Viking, © 2012

Available at the Penguin site, Amazon, Indigo, and fine independent bookstores everywhere.

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