Author: Jung Yun
Published by: Picador
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Where I got the book: Public library
Trigger Warning: domestic violence, rape, home invasion, parental abuse, suicide, marital infidelity
“Kyung Cho is a young father burdened by a house he can’t afford. For years, he and his wife, Gillian, have lived beyond their means. Now their debts and bad decisions are catching up with them, and Kyung is anxious for his family’s future.
A few miles away, his parents, Jin and Mae, live in the town’s most exclusive neighborhood, surrounded by the material comforts that Kyung desires for his wife and son. Growing up, they gave him every possible advantage—private tutors, expensive hobbies—but they never showed him kindness. Kyung can hardly bear to see them now, much less ask for their help. Yet when an act of violence leaves Jin and Mae unable to live on their own, the dynamic suddenly changes, and he’s compelled to take them in. For the first time in years, the Chos find themselves living under the same roof. Tensions quickly mount as Kyung’s proximity to his parents forces old feelings of guilt and anger to the surface, along with a terrible and persistent question: how can he ever be a good husband, father, and son when he never knew affection as a child?” (Source)
I’m generally not a fan of contemporary fiction, particularly fiction about dysfunctional families. A lot of times the books I see being praised are really just about rich people messing up their own lives. So I was intrigued when I saw Shelter being talked about a lot last year. A bunch of Booktubers I follow really enjoyed it, the cover is beautiful and when I saw looking for books to read for #AsianLitBingo it was available at my library. This was a fantastic decision.
Shelter is a novel about a a tragic event that happens to a broken family and what unfolds after and which secrets are uncovered. I don’t want to dive too deep into it since that’d spoil everything but this is a really good contemporary read that quickly drew me in. Yun’s writing is really fresh and she does a really good job at shaping the characters and their lives and homes. Houses and the objects in them are really important symbolically in Shelter but it never feels oppressive in the amount of detail.
Interestingly, Shelter is written in first person, which is a narrative point of view I’m not super familiar with but once I got into the book it felt really natural. Yes, a large part of the book is returning to previous abuse and trauma but all of that is unearthed through the immediate reaction to a horrific and traumatic event that the characters are presently navigating.
Thematically, Shelter is a complex and heart wrenching book. Kyung feels trapped between his parents’ cultural expectations for him, the differences between his upbringing and his wife’s family, wanting to provide for his own family and being unable to afford to do so. It’s also a story that’s incredibly familiar, of trying to do the complete opposite of what your parents did as Kyung struggles to be a good father and husband against his relationship with his parents. This is a type of personal conflict that a lot of people are familiar with, particularly a lot of men I know. Yun really delves into Kyung’s character and his struggles, grappling with what it means to be a man when your only example was toxic, a father when you never had a good relationship with your own, and a husband when your parents’ relationship was abusive, all while straddling two different cultural understandings, Korean and American.
Shelter is a story of the American dream in all its broken splendour, the story of the struggles of a Korean-American immigrant family, broken familial relationships, a return to childhood trauma and abuse. One of the most human things about Shelter though is the fact that things just happen, propelled along by the decisions people make. There is not necessarily a happy ending, a revelation, forgiveness and a reunion. Merely traumatized people making mistakes as they try to live.