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Long for This World is a pointillist triumph—depicting whole worlds through the details of a carefully prepared meal or a dark childhood memory. But author Sonya Chung is also working on a massive scale, effortlessly moving between domestic intimacies and the global stage—Iraq, Paris, Darfur, Syria—to illuminate the relationship between troubled world affairs and personal devastation. The result is a profound portrayal of the human experience, both large and small. Long for This World establishes Chung as a thrilling new voice in fiction.
The eldest brother was twenty years old when he left the island. His wife was eighteen. It was good fortune, the heavens smiling down upon him, that he was offered the position teaching sciences at a junior high school in Kyongju. He was young for the position, and less qualified than the other candidates, but the principal of the school was his wife’s great-uncle and wanted to give the young couple an opportunity to move to the city.
The eldest brother hated the island. He felt trapped, did not like the feeling of being watched, and known. He wanted his independence, to start his own family afresh, and did not want his children to suffer the boredom and small-mindedness of island life. He knew everything there was to know about everyone in the village and did not like any of it. He did not like that nobody cared what was happening in the rest of the world. He did not like that every young man knew his future from the time he was a young boy—that he would take over his father’s rocky plot of land, or rickety fishing boat. He did not like that learning to read and write Chinese characters, the standard pen for literature, was seen as a betrayal by the older generation. He did not like that the girls and boys were paired off when they were fifteen and sixteen years old—like animals, good only for procreation. He did not like that sometimes his uncle took one of his girl cousins into the back room and pulled the curtain closed, and that other men did the same with their daughters and nieces.
So when the opportunity came to leave the island, the eldest brother took it without hesitation. He and his wife packed a small trunk and were ready to leave within days of accepting the position. They did not yet know where they would live, but his wife’s great-uncle would allow them to stay with him until other arrangements could be made.
His younger brother Hyun-kyu—next in line among the three sons—was about to start high school. Hyun-kyu begged his brother to take him along to Kyongju, to the city. He was a good student and had been studying hard. He wanted to leave the island as well. He wanted to go to college. From the beginning, the eldest brother had discouraged him from clinging to such far-fetched ideas, but Hyun-kyu was determined. Now that he was almost fourteen, he knew that the village high school—ten slothful boys and an ajjummah who knew little more than her students—would be of no use to him. And the village library was running out of books for him to read. Hyun-kyu begged and begged, but his brother refused him. There would be no room at the great-uncle’s house, and certainly he and his wife would not be able to afford more than a one-room apartment. The eldest brother needed to make his own plans; he could not look out for anyone else. It pained him to think of it, leaving his sisters and brothers to fend for themselves, but he swallowed his guilt. He turned toward his own life.
The eldest brother and his wife arranged for the ferry to take them across the sea—a passage of some five hours, in good weather—early one Sunday morning. It was barely light out; the ferryman preferred to make the journey early, when the sea was at its calmest. The darkness of that morning was Hyun-kyu’s saving grace: no one noticed as he slipped onto the boat and hid underneath a wool blanket that was thrown over a pile of rope and life preservers. By the time his brother discovered him, they were too far along to turn back.
The eldest brother was angry to discover Hyun-kyu’s trick; but underneath his anger, he was also a little bit pleased. This boy knows what he wants, he thought. His wife defended the boy and pleaded with her husband for compassion. The eldest brother feigned an even greater rage at her defense, and then relented. “Very well,” he said, keeping back a smile. “We will help him along.”
© 2010 Sonya Chung
Posted May 23, 2010
I'm familiar with Sonya Chung's writing and was prepared to enjoy the novel, but I was not prepared to experience such a broad and deep range of human relationships, cultural histories, and family bonds. The characters' voices are honest and vivid. Truly reminds me of Anne Tyler, Barbara Kingsolver, Alice Hoffman.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 28, 2010
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Sonya Chung's writing style is both challenging and clever as it weaves a many-faceted story from the viewpoint of numerous family members. I was very thankful for the outline of characters which she provides in the front of the book as without it I may not have been able to keep track of them, primarily because of the use of Korean names, all of which were unfamiliar and were difficult to memorize. But the story, and in particular her beautiful writing, it's style and language, make this a memorable and thought-provoking book exposing the tensions within each character and in their relationship to each other. The weaving of the story allows us to know the adults, children, males and females, on so many levels, to actually feel with them because we know them, and so do so without judging; it is the human condition brought into and out of focus as it changes, connects and reconnects to the characters throughout the story. Some passages are so uniquely beautiful that you want to claim them and preserve them.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
There are those of us whose place on this earth is tenuous either because of physical or mental ailments. Modern science can help extend a life, or make life more bearable, but can it stave off the inevitable? What happens to the loved ones left behind? Sonya Chung's beautifully written debut novel introduces us to the Han family a cast of characters so alive they breathe with each turning of the page.
Han Hyun-kyu (part of the Korean-American Hans), the second of three Han brothers, has spent most of his adult life in the United States, but has suddenly and without telling his wife packed a suitcase, left his home and headed back to Korea to spend time with his younger brother, Han Jae-kyu. The reasons for him leaving are illusive and inexplicable to his wife and daughter Ah-jin. Ah-jin is a successful photojournalist just back from Beirut where she lost hearing in one of her ears due to a horrific car bombing. Ah-jin's life is lived in suitcases going from one assignment to another. Never really laying down roots she's untethered by relationships and belongings. Her only responsibility has been to care for her brother Han-soo whom she has alternately cared for and intentionally forgotten because Ah-jin has always been the stronger sibling, and he the weaker. Ah-jin travels to the small Korean town to try to figure out why her father left. There we meet the Korean Han's-the hard working town physician, his dutiful yet distant wife and their pregnant daughter. Both sides of the family struggle to find what it means to be Korean/Korean American in the modern world. Both sides must also come to terms with being "long for this world" when those they love are not.
Sonya Chung has written a novel that is at once a page turner yet at the same time one can't help but slow down the pace in order to revel in the perfectly placed words and phrases
Posted March 21, 2010
Long for This World is bold and subtle, thought-provoking and entertaining. Page after page is filled with writing that made me think: Aha! I know that feeling, but could not articulate it (at all, let alone as beautifully), revealing the many layers that can course through a single moment.
The story of the Korean American Han's and the Korean Han's covers a panoramic distance across the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia. Yet the story is not sprawling, it is deep and intimate, filled with the thoughts and feelings of an array of distinct and beautifully rendered characters.
Although the main character Ah Jin (Jane) is a war photographer, and there are vivid scenes that take the reader into the war zone, the most dangerous moments in the story seem to occur during ordinary interactions; between a daughter and her mother, a sister and her brother, a husband and a wife. Much of the story takes place in a small town in Korea inland from the ocean, where "...there is little that happens here in the country, and yet the air moves, it is dynamic, taste and texture and life happen in the breeze." Although a lot happens in this story, we also get to experience what happens "in the breeze." Just like a stop-motion movie that shows a field of flowers blossom in the springtime, we get to see the inner shifts and changes inside the characters, the story takes us places we can't ordinarily go in real life.
Even minor characters are rendered with finesse. Dr. Lee, as Jane calls her mother, is a remote woman, who (ironically) is more devoted to her psychiatric career than to her family. Jane is not close to her mother, yet she tries to imagine what her mother's life was like when she grew up. She imagines that Dr. Lee's mother was probably a woman chasing after social status and romantic affairs, disregarding her child, who later takes on the same self-absorbed traits. Through the thoughts of her daughter, even the selfish Dr. Lee is portrayed with complexity and tenderness.
As I began to reach the end of Long for This World, I wished with every turning page that there were more pages (not less) ahead. In those final pages I was not prepared for how the story had grabbed me, how much I cared for the characters and wanted to spend more time with them, and how the final events would sweep over me emotionally.
In Long for This World Sonya Chung beautifully captures the contradictions, the weaknesses and strengths, the love and hate that swirl together within people and within relationships, and that meld beautifully in this book, leaving the reader richer for having shared in this story.
Posted February 17, 2011
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