Shelter by Jung Yun
Picador, 2016; 336 pp
Reviewed by Megan Turner
Kyung washes his face in the sink, feeling the pinch and pull of muscles
stretched unnaturally in his sleep. Everything aches, but despite the condition of
his body, his mind has never felt more liberated. All the weight he’s been carrying
around for years—it’s as if he threw it into the bay last night, and now here he is,
blinking at his newer, lighter self in the mirror.
Jung Yun’s Shelter is an accomplished first book. Rather than plodding along, as some first books do, the pace is quick—the story propelled forward not only by a vicious home invasion but also by Kyung, the main character’s, inner conflict and complicated response to the crime. The novel does all this while also dealing with larger issues related to Korean culture, obedience, and abuse.
Although Kyung is a complicated character, my sympathies are with him. Abused by his mother (Mae) as a child, Kyung has a difficult time empathizing with her, even after she is severely beaten and raped, supposedly by the two men who broke into her house. There is also Jin, Kyung’s father, who proves to be the real tyrant of book. Mae’s abuse of Kyung seems to be a response to her own abuse. It seems Jin severely beat his wife, and in response, Mae beat Kyung.
Much of the book addresses this abuse and Kyung’s inability to move beyond it. He keeps his parents at a safe distance and so finds himself unable to handle their care. He is conflicted about bringing his parents into his house; he doesn’t know if he can trust them around his wife and son.
On top of all this, it seems Kyung is not only angry with his mother for abusing him as a child, he is also angry that she refused to leave his father, that she was seeming complacent about her own struggle. This conflict between Kyung and his mother proves to be the most surprising part of the book, as it seems much of the time Kyung is, in fact, misreading Mae. As the novel progresses, he learns that Mae does have some agency. In one section of the book, for example, Mae asks Kyung to teach her how to drive. As soon as he teaches her, it is clear how much Mae enjoys it, how liberating it is for her—a woman who was once dominated by her husband.
Yun writes, “Kyung rolls down his window to let some air in. When he looks over at Mae, she’s smiling as the wind blows her hair back; her eyes are clear and bright.”
As the plot moves forward, other conflicts unfold. Perhaps the most opaque of these is the conflict between Kyung and his wife, Gillian. Initially, there is some discussion of Kyung and Gillian’s different races and backgrounds. (Kyung’s family is wealthy while Gillian’s is not.) There are also financial difficulties. It seems Gillian and Kyung have squandered away most of their money, and Kyung refuses to ask his parents for help.
Despite all this, it seems there are deeper marital problems between Gillian and Kyung. I may be biased, but I found myself unable to side with Gillian. Kyung’s wife appears to have more sympathy for his parents than she does for Kyung, even after learning about the abuse Kyung suffered as a child. Some of the conflict between the two has to do with Kyung’s inability to take charge of his life. Kyung also has a near affair with the reverend’s wife, Molly, which Gillian later finds out about. Yet, despite all this, it seems Kyung deserves someone who understands him. (Surprisingly, this sympathy does not come from his wife, in the end, but from Reverend Sung, someone Kyung previously despised.)
During the funeral at the end of the book, Gillian refuses to speak to Kyung. It seems, at this point, someone might take pity on Kyung, but no one does. “Kyung feels like he’s sitting on the bottom of a swimming pool,” writes Yun, “looking up at a distorted view of a world in which no one understands what really happened. And his father and Gillian, people who should understand, refuse to believe.”
A lot of Shelter is about missteps, misunderstandings, and family conflicts that just won’t go away—yet the book runs deeper than that. Yun has given us a conflicted character whose pain and struggles easily become our own. If that weren’t enough, the conflict is packaged within a well-paced, plot-driven book that refuses to sit still. This is an exciting first book; it is one that keeps the reader thinking while also keeping her on her toes.
Disclaimer: I graduated from the same MFA program (at the University of Massachusetts Amherst) as Jung Yun.