One of the most voyeuristic delights of reading a novel is the ability to peer over someone else’s shoulder and muse over the intricacies of a culture unknown to you. Having never been to Korea, and encountered solid truths and personal experiences rarely in the press, I thoroughly appreciated the painful insight into their delicate culture in Forgotten Country by Catherine Chung. Through the eyes of the central character, we are taken on a journey which explores culture and identity through the story of her family and their adjustment to . We follow her into a re-evaluation of her past and her parents’ reasons for moving to America from Korea, as well as a journey which trails through the emotional bundles accrued by families and prods at the tight bonds of love that flourish between fathers and daughters. The key focus for this is the disappearance of her sister which her parents look to her to solve.
Being one of three sisters myself, I was impressed with the eloquent way she captured the complex relationships that arise between siblings. The painful wrest between rivalry and devotion is tricky to express, especially when faced with the mortality of your parents. Chung paints this relationship exquisitely between the two sisters, using sparse yet emotionally charged dialogue to reveal enough to hint at the shadows beneath without being too OBVIOUS. Using a first person narrative from the point of view of one of the sisters also holds the other distant and wavering, making true resolution impossible, which is a far better reflection of the reciprocity of this relationship.
The cultural heart of the novel is also never overstated. There is horrific cruelty and hardship painted onto the background of government oppression from, but this is blunt and not over-sentimentalised, magnifying the sense of tragedy. In the family’s struggle to adjust to life in America, we see the harsh realities of the treatment of minorities and the marked influence this has on second generation immigrants, painting foreign moralities and desires over a conflicted cultural core.
The narrative pace shifts cleverly between settings, so we hurtle through life in the busy Western world, but remain almost suspended outside of time in the languorous descriptions of the beauty of the countryside and the depth of the traditions in Korea. We also slip deftly in and out of the present, as this novel is arguably more about the influences that have brought the characters to where they are now than examining how it will affect their futures. This effortless interweaving of time is one of the most impressive aspects of the book. Remembered stories and traditional tales enhance the current mood and allow for a more reflective characterisation. An absorbing and poignant read.