Friday, March 9, 2012

Forgotten Country by Catherine Chung

The blurb:
On the night Janie waits for her sister, Hannah, to be born, her grandmother tells her a story: Since the Japanese occupation of Korea, their family has lost a daughter in every generation, so Janie is charged with keeping Hannah safe. As time passes, Janie hears more stories, while facts remain unspoken. Her father tells tales about numbers, and in his stories everything works out. In her mother's stories, deer explode in fields, frogs bury their loved ones in the ocean, and girls jump from cliffs and fall like flowers into the sea. Within all these stories are warnings.

Years later, when Hannah inexplicably cuts all ties and disappears, Janie embarks on a mission to find her sister and finally uncover the truth beneath her family's silence. To do so, she must confront their history, the reason for her parents' sudden move to America twenty years earlier, and ultimately her conflicted feelings toward her sister and her own role in the betrayal behind their estrangement.

Weaving Korean folklore within a modern narrative of immigration and identity, Forgotten Country is a fierce exploration of the inevitability of loss, the conflict between obligation and freedom, and a family struggling to find its way out of silence and back to one another.

An engrossing read, Forgotten Country addresses a wide range of complex topics while remaining a family drama first and foremost.   Catherine Chung weaves in these larger historical events.   It seems that each of the three generations undergo major upheaval and loss whether from Japanese invaders, political factions within Korea, an authoritarian regime or from the North Korea-South Korea conflict.  Chung weaves the history of the country in with the history of their family so we slowly learn how these events wreak havoc on the lives of ordinary South Korean families.

It was so easy to imagine the complex relationship between Janie and her younger sister Hannah but what captivated me was Janie's relationship with her father.  Janie's decision to specialize in mathematics was in large part a nod to her own father's love of math and his achievements in the field. I particularly loved the scenes with Janie and her father.   I started out marking the pages that I wanted to revisit and halfway through the book I realized that I'd marked nearly every 7th page.

In Forgotten Country, Catherine Chung gives us an engrossing and fresh story of a Korean American family through three generations.  From the experience of migrating to the US and making a home in a new country,  the parents' complex relationship with the two daughters, the family's struggle with Hannah's "disappearance" and conflict between the sisters,  Chung delivers seamless, complex, moving and honest family narrative.
ISBN-10: 1594488088 - Hardcover $26.95
Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover (March 1, 2012), 304 pages.  
Review copy courtesy of the Amazon Vine Program and the publisher.

About the Author:
Catherine Chung was born in Evanston, Illinois, and grew up in New York, New Jersey, and Michigan. She studied mathematics at the University of Chicago and received her MFA from Cornell University. Chung is one of Granta's New Voices. She lives in Brooklyn. To learn more about Catherine Chung, please visit

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