Janie is a mathematics PhD candidate, floundering in a discipline that doesn’t come naturally to her so that she can bond with her father by following in his footsteps. When Janie’s sister Hannah disappears, Janie is the one tasked with finding Hannah and bringing her home, jeopardizing her degree in the process. Janie is reluctant to indulge what she feels is her sister’s selfishness, but since their parents are moving back to Korea to pursue treatment for their father’s terminal cancer, she feels as though she must at least go through the motions of honoring their request. Janie knows from family lore that every generation in her family has experienced the loss of a sister, but she also learns that the resulting sense of loss and hard consequences are the same, even when disappearance is voluntary.
Forgotten Country tells many stories – that of a family caught between the traditions of their Korean heritage and the demands of fitting into a new country, painful secrets that are kept to preserve the family peace, children choosing between pleasing their parents and following their own paths, and sibling love turned to sibling rivalry. Janie’s first person narrative is beautifully communicated and deeply observed, full of intrigue and mystery. It’s questionable how much Janie grows as a character, but it is certainly fascinating to see how much she has hidden from herself as some of the family’s secrets, and her own, are carefully revealed. The novel jumps around in time, is filled with Korean folklore and fairytales, and introduces many characters, but all are intricately drawn and easily draw the reader in amongst its many warnings and curiosities. The changing relationships between the sisters, and their parents rings sad, yet true.
With Forgotten Country, Catherine Chung has written a thoughtful and touching novel that draws its strength from examining a host of complicated, yet beautifully rendered family issues. There aren’t any neat resolutions to be found, and some mysteries remain just that, but don’t let that deter you from this achingly bittersweet tale of two sisters. Highly recommended.