The night her sister was born, Janie was warned by her grandmother to take good care of the new baby, since in their family, a sister disappears in every generation. So begins the beautiful debut novel Forgotten Country by Catherine Chung, a masterful exploration of generational tensions within a Korean family on two continents.
Janie is a graduate student in mathematics when her sister Hannah disappears from college, cutting off all communication with the family. Their father demands that Janie find her, which is difficult since Hannah’s disappearance is clearly intentional. Haunted by her grandmother’s words, Janie resentfully searches; this is just the latest instance of her sister’s manipulations. However, when a second crisis forces her parents to move back to Korea after 20 years in Michigan, the urgency of contacting Hannah increases.
At the center of the novel is the legacy of the Japanese occupation’s violence, the Korean War and the subsequent division of the country. After the gruesome slaughter of his parents, Janie’s father was raised by an older sister. Janie’s mother lost an older sister under mysterious circumstances that are never discussed. The reactions of Janie and Hannah to their tradition-bound parents—one dutiful, the other rebellious—also follows familiar tropes. It is in the family’s return to Korea that the novel really breaks new ground, as Janie is forced to confront the effects of family history on her own life, and come to terms with her role in Hannah’s filial ambivalence.
Recently named one of Granta’s New Voices, 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. Chung is especially successful in the depiction of the intense cauldron of emotion between siblings. The novel ends with a resolution that is satisfying but in no way pat or formulaic, an indication of her extraordinary talent.
RELATED CONTENT: Read a Q&A with Catherine Chung for Forgotten Country.