Monday, April 2, 2012

Review: Drifting House, by Krys Lee

It’s always impressive when a short story collection can hold within it both a unity of subject matter and a range of approaches. This definitely applies to the debut collection from Krys Lee, called Drifting House. The topic is clear across all nine tales: Korea—both as a place and as a mentality, the social mores and circumstances driven by a unique set of histories and traditions.

But the range within this central vision is vast. Lee writes about Koreans on their native soil as well as Koreans who have immigrated to America. She writes both about South and North Korea. Her protagonists are men as often as they are women. It’s as if she doesn’t want to privilege one type of Korean tale over another; she wants to, if not run the gamut, at least provide a generous cross section of contemporary Korean life.

And she does. There is a tale about the invidious position Korean women find themselves in a divorce (“A Temporary Marriage”); there’s a story about the love that still dare not speak its name, even in a city as cosmopolitan as Seoul (“The Goose Father”); there is an examination of the IMF crisis in the South in the late 1990s (“The Salaryman”) as well as the famine and the fleeing refugees in the North (the title story). In each piece, Lee commits herself to the world she has created for each of her characters and embraces the nuance of their multitudinous experiences.

Unfortunately, there is a regrettable strain of melodrama—another facet of the Korean mindset, perhaps—that comes on near the end of almost all of these stories. It’s frustrating to have a tale carry you along with its sharp language and fully drawn characters, only to have that world undermined by a burst of unearned or overstated emotion at the end. Only the final story, “Beautiful Women,” manages to avoid sentimentality completely. This piece, so exquisite, so breathtaking in its vision and execution, never lets emotion get out of hand; it leaves so many wonderful gaps for the reader to fill in what his or her own heart feels about what has transpired. If only the other pieces in the book did this a bit more.

Still, this is an impressive collection overall. Having lived in Korea for two and a half years and researched many elements of its culture for my own writing, I had plenty of little moments of recognition reading this book. Krys Lee is an immense talent and someone to expect big things from in the future.

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