Drifting House
 by Krys Lee

Faber&Faber (UK)
First Collection

"Still, he soldiered his siblings up the mountain slope of granite and bare, spectral trees with the assurance of an oldest son.  His legs shook under his sister’s slight weight.  As they continued, the town’s narrow harmonica houses, the empty factories, even the glorious statue of Kim Il-sung, their Great Leader and the Dear Leader’s father, shrank to the size of a thumbnail. Then their town was gone."

Reviewed by Elaine Chiew

For a slender volume of nine stories told in a spare but lyrical style, Krys Lee’s debut collection takes on some heavyweight themes – those concerning the effects of the civil war that had torn Korea into two as well as the price that mercenary Korean soldiers pay for fighting the Vietnam War on the side of the United States. The collection takes on the profound familial, social and psychic dislocation caused by economic upheavals following the 1997 IMF crisis, or simply the stories of woe and broken dreams caused by migration to a foreign land that promised more opportunities but instead landed its "converts" in low income neighborhoods edged with Korean strip malls.

The characters in these stories respond to their individual conundrums with stolidity and often a strong sacrificial spirit, from the determination of a Korean woman willing to sign herself up for a fake marriage to a Korean immigrant in the U.S. in order to find her daughter (A Temporary Marriage) to an artist wife willfully "turning the other cheek" at her husband’s infidelity and befriending the wife’s mistress (A Small Sorrow), to a Korean man taking to the street after being retrenched, entreating his wife and children to return to the wife’s maternal home where at least they would be fed (The Salaryman). The line between love and sin, or sin and sacrifice, has never been so razor-edged, made blurry with love and desperation.

In the title story, Drifting House, where the above quote comes from, an elder brother carrying his sister across the North Korean border to China in the wake of the devastation of the Korean War, faces a choice few of us have experienced or could even envision. In The Believer, a daughter with a deep religious streak sacrifices herself by engaging in incestuous relations with her father out of "her desire to give back his stolen happiness" following a disturbing asylum visit to mother/wife who had committed the heinous crime of murdering a delivery boy.

Religion, as opposed to spirituality, troll these stories, calling to mind Flannery O’Connor and more than a touch of Faulkner. Religion here is cast as a creature, benign in intention, but often malevolent in effect, leaving dark smudges of guilt and self-inflicted punishment on the psyche of these characters, and without hope of salvation. In A Temporary Marriage, Mrs Shin punishes herself with self-flagellation for having been distracted from her search for her daughter when she engaged in trading sexual favors with her fake husband in exchange for appeasing her own loneliness and social estrangement. The boy in At The Edge of the World, Mark Lee, is the adopted son of the younger brother in Drifting House who had managed to traverse the border from North Korea to China while his older brother succumbed under the weight of his own guilt and anguish.  We see the younger brother, now a much older man, still living in the past with his ghosts, willing to consult a shaman who had moved in next door, in order to commune with the spirit of his older brother.

War continues in the psychic halls of our beaten selves, as succinctly phrased by Junho, a boy character in the last story, Beautiful Women, physically abused for years by a father returned from being a paid soldier in the Vietnam War with psychic scars no one could redress. Junho said, "My mother said the war never happened, but it’s still happening to me..."

The stories flirt with fabulism (turquoise butterflies that trail the departure of mother and daughter in Beautiful Women) and surrealism (the goose indeed turns into a woman in The Goose Father), but never descend into magical realism territory, which is wise, in my opinion, because the collection does skirt the rim of histrionism and melodrama, with the stilted exchange between Mrs Shin and her ex-husband in the first story, to the pastor who commits suicide because he can’t stand the way he physically abuses his new wife and his own children (The Pastor’s Son). The fabulism here is dealt a light hand, and leavens the otherwise relentlessly bleak stories (these are not stories to be gulped down in one go; one often has to pause after reading just one to digest its effect).

In The Goose Father, Gilho Pak takes in an unexpected boarder, a boy with a goose "the size of an overfed cat".  The boy boarder is convinced the goose is the spirit of his dead mother, which Gilho scoffs at. The boy’s idealism troubles yet tugs at him. It ends up eliciting from him a kind of sexual pull. Krys Lee mines this vein of our limbic response to tragedy, loss and sorrow again and again in several of the stories, flipping it back and forth, revealing at times the darkness of physicality (which in the case of war, is an inescapable diorama) in the fathers who inflict their own physical brokenness onto sons (A Pastor’s Son, Beautiful Women) and at others the subliminal survival instinct (Mina, the daughter in Beautiful Women, who examines her mother’s private parts under the bell hoop of her skirt for signs of sluttiness and then later, fulfils the cliché of "like mother, like daughter" as she becomes the mistress of Seongwon, the artist wife’s husband, in A Small Sorrow.) More brazenly, Krys Lee sets out in horrific detail the scene of a daughter making the first sexual gambit towards her father in The Believer.  These sexual aberrations do not feel, and are not meant to be, freeing; rather, they seemed to be the rafting to the surface of unconscious psychoses inflicted by tragedy, war, separation, loss and death.  

Read a story from this collection in Granta

Elaine Chiew currently lives in London. She won First Prize in the Bridport Short Story Competition (2008) and has been shortlisted, nominated, selected and/or won other fiction competitions and awards including the Fish Short Story Prize, Per Contra, Dzanc Books Best of the Web series, and Camera Obscura.  Her stories can be found most recently in African Writing Online (Jan 2011), killauthor (Issue 8), Alimentum (Issue 6), among others.
Elaine's other Short Reviews: Sarah Salway "Leading the Dance"

Nona Caspers "Heavier than Air"

Kevin Barry "There are Little Kingdoms"

ZZ Packer "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere"

Tobias Wolff "Our Story Begins"

Nam Le "The Boat"

Jimmy Chen "Typewriter

Laura van den Berg "What the world will look like whaen all the water leaves us"
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Krys Lee was born in Seoul, South Korea, raised in California and Washington, and studied in the United States and England. She was a finalist for Best New American Voices, received a special mention in the 2012 Pushcart Prize XXXVI, and her work has appeared in the Kenyon Review, Narrative magazine, Granta (New Voices), California Quarterly, Asia Weekly, the Guardian, the New Statesman, and Conde Nast Traveller, UK (forthcoming). She lives in Seoul with intervals in San Francisco.

Read an interview with Krys Lee