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Forgotten Country Hardcover – March 1, 2012
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*Starred Review* Moving among feelings from reserved to exuberant and from easy joy all the way to devastating pain and loss, Chung’s superb debut examines the twin hearts of cruelty and compassion between sisters in particular and family in general. Korean immigrant and grad student Janie, born Jeehyun, and her younger sister, Hannah, known as Haejin in their native tongue, struggle to maintain even the veneer of a sisterly bond as they at times gracefully float together, then violently come apart, throughout their lives. When Hannah abruptly disappears from the family fold, Janie is charged by their father with finding her and bringing her back. Haunted by childhood memories of her grandmother’s story about the family being cursed with lost sisters for generations, Janie feels compelled to find Hannah yet bitterly resentful as well. A second harrowing blow to the family lends urgency to Janie’s search while providing deeper introspection about the fragile and implacable bonds that hold a family together even across the seemingly impassable chasm of different cultures and changing generations. This elegantly written, stunningly powerful, simply masterful first novel should earn Chung many fans, especially among those who enjoy Amy Tan, Eugenia Kim, Lisa See, and Chang-Rae Lee. --Julie Trevelyan
"Chung indelibly portrays a Korea viciously divided but ever bound to history, myth, and hope."--O, The Oprah Magazine
"In this beautiful debut novel...Woven with tender reflections, sharp renderings of isolation, and beautiful prose...Chung simultaneously shines light on the violence of Korean history, the chill of American xenophobia, and the impossibility of home in either country."
"Luminous and surprising . . . [Chung's] voice is fresh, her material rich, and Forgotten Country is an impressive, memorable debut."
--San Francisco Chronicle
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I really liked this first work of literary fiction by Catherine Chung set in two countries and spanning many years. Reading about Korean folklore and the hierarchy of this Asian family I found very inspiring, but at the same time Forgotten Country is not a happy book. It is a story of a family that is subservient to rituals passed down over many years through familial and cultural traditions, one that experiences the daily joys and trials of love and ultimately loss, but above all else, the need to belong.
The cover is very pretty with its blue and pink colors and the blurred blossoms behind a web of pink lines that bring to mind Janie's pursuit of a Ph.D. in mathematics, but also reminds me of being outside looking in, which this Korean family experienced in both countries they lived in. I absorbed the many descriptive passages of the mountains, lakes and rivers in Korea as well as the rice paddies and the family's appreciation of nature more when they were in Korea.
As illness takes its toll on the family, I related very much to Janie's experience, and for anyone who has sat a death vigil over a period of time will understand what Janie and the rest of the family felt and thought and hoped during such a trying period in life. A bit of comic relief is scattered throughout by the typical aunt who annoys with her loud and boisterous, bossy ways, but when young, her two unruly sons add stress and unhappiness that comes back to haunt Hannah many years later and adds to the friction between the sisters.
For readers who enjoy stories of families, Asian stories and literary fiction, I highly recommend Forgotten Country. I gave it four stars because it isn't quite as polished as some other debut novels I've read, but I'm betting on the fact that Chung's next one will be. I'm looking forward to it.
"I sat, looking at my father with the hat over his face, watching the rise and fall of his breath, thinking of a book filled with all the things I still didn't know about his life. I thought: let him get better. I lay down beside him.
On my back, squinting against the light, I thought I could see the air moving. On the tree above us, a lone leaf quivered recklessly out of sync with the rest. When we were children, our mother had told us how trees grow: about the roots gripping the ground, the stable trunk, the branches, the separate leaves. She told us about veins we couldn't see carrying sap to all the branches, the chemical processes that turn light into sugar, chlorophyll infusing each leaf with green as it unfurls.
She told us that beneath the ground, where no one could see, some trees gripped each other's roots in the ground like so many held hands. Mahogany did it. Aspen. Gnarled wood grasped gnarled wood until one tree's roots were another tree's roots. In times of drought they passed water, when there were fires they passed messages of danger. Burning, an aspen would send the alert root to root so that even if it died itself, the other trees could bring up sap to save themselves from danger.
'Even plants live longer if they're closer to their families,' she'd said."