Shelter by Jung Yun — book review

Many good books are hard to recommend because their power stems from probing aspects of humanity we would rather pretend don’t exist, especially when they deal with how we treat those closest to us.

Jung Yun’s Shelter defiantly launches itself into painful, shameful family dynamics in a novel that feels both like a winding punch to the stomach and a clawing at the heart.

Released this month, Shelter reveals an impressive disregard for the challenges Yun’s readers will face in recommending it, as well as a mastery of momentum usually found in thrillers rather than domestic meditations.

Set in the US during the global financial crisis, Shelter captures a few weeks in the life of Kyung Cho, the now-adult child of two ambitious Korean immigrants. They  have lavished everything but love and tenderness on their only child as they grew up in a wealthy corner of their city.

Cho and his wife Gillian sip on an all-too common cocktail of contemporary woes: communication challenges, gruelling financial predicaments and a young son to whom they desperately want to offer a better childhood than those they had  themselves.

When Cho’s parents’ lives are ripped apart and they move in with Cho and Gillian, Cho’s carefully contained world is upended. His capacity to cope is washed away in a wave of memories and a justifiable rage deeply etched into his perspective. This gives the novel the emotional heft to make it one of most difficult and rewarding novel debuts of the year.

While reading Shelter — during the frequent moments when stepping out of the book feels like coming up for air — one imagines how vigorously its publishers might have argued over its blurb. Is it a gritty, no holds barred look at domestic trauma? Is it an optimistic story of redemption?

The book is both. It is this neatness that makes the story both intensely frustrating but ultimately encouraging to read as it strives to dignify the mess of ordinary agonising lives.

Cho is the kind of protagonist you’d loathe if it wasn’t clearly his story, narrated from a tight third person perspective. Despite the significant emotional development of the characters, the precision of his characterisation is one of the lingering memories of the book: he feels real.

“It’s sad she thinks this way, but this has always been her problem,” Cho thinks of his recently traumatised mother as he tries to teach her how to drive.

“She never believed she was capable of anything. Jin [Cho’s father] made sure of that early on. Now isn’t the time to convince her otherwise. She’ll accuse him of not wanting to drive her around, which was always his motive for offering to teach her in the past.”

The author’s commitment to offering the world a delicately wrought but utterly unlacquered account of family dynamics is courageous.

While her commitment to rendering quietly harrowing challenges of all-to-common relationships is par for the course in literary fiction, especially in an era of increased awareness of domestic violence, Shelter remains a stunning debut.

Published by Picador Australia

You can buy the book here 

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