Family can be tricky. Whenever there is as much emotion as there can be around families, sparks are going to fly. When you’re a child, the world can be confusing and it can be hard to process the actions of the adults around you. As you grow up, you gain the context to understand your parent’s actions and then get the mixed pleasure of struggling to redefine your parents in shades of grey rather than a binary black or white.
In Shelter by Jung Yun, we follow the story of Kyung Cho and his relationship with his family. Kyung is a young father who is married to a woman named Gillian. They are under some stress with the expenses of their living situation and in the very beginning of the book, they’re looking to see what they could sell their house for by letting a realtor into their house. Things take a turn for the strange and the tragic when Kyung sees his mother stumbling into his yard, naked and muttering in Korean to him. She’s been hurt and the instant that Kyung sees her, he knows what happened. With the confidence of belief that Kyung hasn’t felt since he was a child, he knows exactly what happened here.
His father has hurt his mother again.
There is a balance to everything that is done in Shelter. Every action has a consequence, a pull and a push, and we follow Kyung as he takes in his parents and tries to come to terms with his relationship to them. When he was a child, he was neglected and abused, and now he finds it difficult to step forward and take care of the people who should have been taking care of him all these years.
The Cho family leads a segmented life. There is the outer life, the one that they show their friends and that they try to live up to. Then there is the inner life, where the secrets are choking them and they have trouble finding their own footing. Kyung and his family “…were all too good at pretending to be normal, like the world would end if anyone realized who we actually were inside–” and that skill at pretending to be something they are not builds up a metaphorical house of cards around them.
Kyung is given little time to put things into perspective, the world will move on and leave him behind if he’s not careful. Feeling like a peeping tom peering through the windows, I was able to join his family on their respective journeys. For a book that is of average length, Shelter packs a lot of depth into its pages. It delves into themes of family and fatherhood, drawing both from Kyung’s experience as a child and his experiences now as a father. It looks at helplessness, at finding independence, at the mistakes we can never undo, and where the line for forgiveness should lie.
Shelter is a novel that looks at the complicated myriad of things that a human being can be. Some novels will distill the essence of the human experience, focusing in on a specific aspect of living to give the clearest picture possible. Despite the clear cut organization of Shelter, the novel feels messy. It’s as if the messiness of the characters’ lives are spilling out of the book, drawing us into their interrupted routines and lives.
Kyung and Gillian are messy. They’re innately human and worried about the future of their son (Ethan), of the way that he might interact with his grandparents, and of what Ethan’s grandparents might do to him.
In the end, Shelter is not an easy read, but it’s not meant to be. Whether you can empathize with the character’s or not, the confusion that is part of all our lives will seep underneath your skin. The world is horrifying and beautiful, quiet and loud, and our lives are so easy to destroy. Whether the destruction comes from our own actions, the actions of someone else, or some combination of the two.
Shelter isn’t there to protect us or to provide peace, but maybe it can help us in other ways. When we’re children, the world can be terrifying because we don’t understand.
When we grow up, the world becomes terrifying because we do.