A young woman struggles to understand her sometimes-competing roles as daughter, sister, scholar and Korean American in Chung's darkly luminous debut.
Twenty years ago Janie and Hannah moved with their parents to Michigan to avoid reprisals by South Korea's then-authoritarian government against their brilliant mathematician father's incendiary political pamphlet. Janie, now a graduate student in mathematics in Chicago, has always grudgingly accepted the way her family considers it her responsibility as older sister to protect more openly rebellious Hannah. When Hannah drops out of college and takes off for California, cutting off communication with her traditionally tight knit family, Janie is furious. Then her father is diagnosed with a form of cancer best treated, ironically, in Korea. Dispatching Janie to find Hannah and break the news, her parents return to Korea. Janie finds Hannah thriving in Los Angeles. During a quarrel, Janie claims their parents are done with Hannah and tells her not to come to Korea. To Janie's surprise, Hannah acquiesces and stays behind. Janie arrives in Korea alone, claiming Hannah couldn't get away. Ensconced with her parents in a lovely Korean home and visited by devoted (if sometimes rancorous) family and friends, Janie develops a deeper appreciation for her parents' history, particularly her father's. His health seems to improve, and she luxuriates in his approval and her role as the good daughter. But when his condition suddenly worsens, Janie's mother calls Hannah herself. Hannah comes immediately, and, to Janie's chagrin, the family embraces her as if she never deserted it. As their father's health deteriorates, Janie and Hannah's sibling rivalry comes to a head, but their bond is stronger than either has recognized. Despite some missteps into clichés about abuse, Chung delves with aching honesty and beauty into large, difficult questionsthe strength and limits of family, the definition of home, the boundaries (or lack thereof) between duty and lovewithin the context of a Korean experience.
Chung's limpid prose matches her emotional intelligence.
“Gorgeous . . . a heartbreaking story about sisters, family, and keeping traditions alive.”
“Luminous and surprising . . . [Chung’s] voice is fresh, her material rich, and Forgotten Country is an impressive, memorable debut.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“[A] lovely, elegiac novel . . . both heartbreaking and redemptive.”
— The Boston Globe
"Chung indelibly portrays a Korea viciously divided but ever bound to history, myth, and hope."
—O, The Oprah Magazine
“The unflinchingly honest examination of grief, anger, familial obligation, and love gives the novel a compelling emotional core.”
—The New Yorker
“[Chung] is sensitive to the spontaneous combustibility of sisterly relations… [her] prose is crisp and unfussy.”
—The New York Times
“Forgotten Country is often wrenching, but Chung's graceful writing -- replete as it is with delicately rendered family affections, snippets of Korean folklore and an unerring sense of storytelling -- lifts the tragedies into the realm of lovely melancholia. The pain Janie feels with all of her discoveries isn't enviable, but the peace that the hard-swallowed wisdom brings her is touching and true.”
“A spare, haunting tale of loss, yearning and discovery.”
“An inexpressibly beautiful story…Chung does a masterful job of weaving the past with the present, incorporating mythology and memory in ways that both captivate and haunt…If you read one novel this spring, let it be Forgotten Country. I cannot overstate the joy this book brings.”
“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.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Moving among emotions, 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…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.”
—Booklist (starred review)
“Chung delves with aching honesty and beauty into large, difficult questions—the strength and limits of family, the definition of home, the boundaries (or lack thereof) between duty and love—within the context of a Korean experience. Chung’s limpid prose matches her emotional intelligence.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Beautiful…a masterful exploration of generational tensions within a Korean family on two continents…Chung is a remarkable writer, willing to dig fearlessly under her characters’ surface motivations. Her style is elegant but never clinical, and her judicious use of Korean folktales amplifies the themes of sacrifice, duty and expectation.”
“Forgotten Country is a remarkable debut novel, one that profoundly explores our connections to family, friends, and homeland.”
“It is a rare novel -- debut or otherwise -- that can sing at once with such tenderness and ferocity, with such intense feeling and exquisite restraint. Forgotten Country is just that book, poetically crafted, shimmering with hard-won emotion, and wholly absorbing. A superb performance.”
—Chang-rae Lee, author of The Surrednered
“A heartbreaking debut novel that will leave you quietly shattered in its wake. Forgotten Country is an exquisitely rendered account of a Korean immigrant family divided by two sisters, two countries and a curse that spans generations. Catherine Chung has written a haunting meditation on family loyalty and the lingering legacy of war.”
—Julie Otsuka, author of The Buddha in the Attic
“Catherine Chung's wonderful first novel is a moving and deeply personal story of a family caught between two very different countries and very different lives.”
—Alison Lurie, author of Foreign Affairs
“Catherine Chung is a writer whose first novel I've been waiting for, and her debut, Forgotten Country, more than fulfills what I hoped for---a boldly imagined novel of Korea and America, of a curse between sisters and a family trying to outrun a war that will not let them go. Chillingly beautiful and magnetic, unforgettable.”
—Alexander Chee, author of Edinburgh
"A riveting, brutal portrait of two sisters in crisis, Catherine Chung's unforgettable debut is a work of enormous talent and heart. Written with compassion and insight, Forgotten Country examines the unspoken complexities of familial love and forgiveness, loyalty and betrayal, and renders an indelible, haunting image of Korea, past and present."
–Kate Walbert, author of A Short History of Women
“I was left utterly devastated by the wonder and heartbreak captured in these pages. Forgotten Country is overflowing with folktales and family secrets, with American and Korean traditions, with haunting prose and mathematical beauty. Here is a book to cherish, and to celebrate. When I finished the last page I made a promise to myself to be more fearless and fierce with my love; it's that kind of book.”
—Justin Torres, author of We the Animals