Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Short Story Month: Paul Yoon's Once the Shore

Since May is Short Story Month, we are posting some excerpts of book reviews of short story collections that originally appeared in print in The Common Review. Today's review is of Paul Yoon's debut collection, Once the Shore, published by Sarabande Books. This review originally appeared in The Common Review 8:2, Fall 2009.

Review by Lindsay Tigue

In his debut collection, Paul Yoon elegantly links a group of stories set on the fictional island of Solla, off the coast of South Korea. His prose is lovely and direct, constantly pointing to the missing or lonely center of his characters' lives.

The title story grounds the collection in loss and connection. A few months after her husband's death, an American woman visits the island where her husband had taken a brief wartime furlough many years before. She takes up residence in a local hotel, and meets a young waiter nicknamed Jim, who is trying to comprehend his brother's recent death that occurred when an American submarine accidentally destroyed a fishing boat. In their separate griefs the widow and the waiter form an off-balance connection. The widow speaks wistfully of her relationship with her husband. More restrained, Jim refuses the terms of his brother's death. The submarine incident is major news at the hotel and on the island, but Jim is able to ignore it, convincing himself that "once escaped from mouths, [the event] was no longer his, now fanned across the air in the realm of static."

Other stories also show various responses to loss. In "Among the Wreckage," a husband and wife set out to find their son who has been accidentally killed by a U.S. test bombing. As they set out toward the disaster site, the husband, Bey, feels the weight of his family's life. Watching his wife soothe her chapped lips with tea, "he saw how she had aged, as if she were shrinking each and every day. He was too--perhaps they would be whittled to the size of a pocket. He thought of death in this way. A diminishing." Yet Bey also views this trip as a means of retrieving what they have lost.

Yoon's characters exist in their own orbits of isolation. In "Faces to the Fire," a solitary shopkeeper, Sojin, finds her world temporarily altered after her childhood love, Kori, briefly returns to town after fifteen years' absence. Sojin reflects on this passage of time, in which tourism has brought significant change. She also considers being left behind, whether by death or life beyond Solla Island and thinks "perhaps there had never been a choice and the town, this island, had kept her. She had been willing. Still was." Sojin recognizes and accepts her solitude.

Throughout this collection the experience of wartime occupation and then tourism weigh heavily on the island inhabitants. Both World War Two and the Korean War repeatedly intrude. In "And We Will Be Here," Miya, the protagonist, imagines a boy who, at the end speaks to her about war. "'Hey Miss,' the boy said. 'War's ending.' He tapped his earlobe. 'Listen.'" Until that moment in the story, the war details were there, but somehow only as a force in the background. At the end, war rumbles back into the center.

Once the Shore is a masterfully-written collection, and best rewards the patient reader. Yoon's stories take time to develop, but carry notes of grace and hope. In "Once the Shore" there is the hint of solace in the way the widow and Jim grieve separately yet together, while "And We Will Be Here," despite its ambivalence, finishes on the promise of war's end.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful and sharp review, Lindsay. I am adding this book to my wish list!