Living beyond their means, Kyung Cho and his wife, Gillian, are now drowning in debt. By all outward appearances, they seem modestly successful: Kyung has a PhD and teaches at a university, and they live in the second most desirable neighborhood in a Boston suburb, just down the hill from the wealthiest area, where Kyung’s parents live. In reality, their marriage is strained and all of their credit cards are maxed out; buying even the most basic necessities is a strain on their limited resources. The time has come to face reality and sell their home.
The realtor’s assessment is another blow: with the terrible housing market, they wouldn’t get enough from the sale of the house to clear their debts. It would be wiser to rent their place out and wait until the market gets better. It makes the most sense for the family to move in with Kyung’s parents, whose home is large enough to accommodate everyone. But Kyung, who has done the bare minimum to give the appearance of a good Korean son, can’t bring himself to take that most logical step. He harbors inexplicable resentment toward his parents that even Gillian does not know about.
All of these problems pale in comparison to the ones to come. Kyung’s frantic mother arrives at their house one day, the victim of a violent attack. Now, instead of moving in with Kyung’s parents, Kyung’s parents must move in with them; because of what happened, Mae and Jin clearly won’t be able to live on their own for a while.
Two intensely stressed out families under one small roof: it’s a recipe for disaster. Rather than turning to his wife for support, constant presence of his parents only exacerbates Kyung’s bitterness. He trusts no one and resents everything, and though he grudgingly tells Gillian some of the reasons why, Kyung mostly keeps it bottled up inside.
Most of the time, Shelter is my favorite type of family drama. It’s dark subject matter that unfolds at a brisk pace, making it impossible to put down. It also juggles identity politics, and the expectations that Korean culture places on its sons. The book’s title is ironic; the concept of “shelter” is more of a mirage. No matter how much money is spent creating a home, “shelter” did not exist when it violence rained down on Mae and Jin, and it certainly does not exist for Kyung and Gillian.
My one quibble with the book was its ending, which felt much too tidy for a story with so many startling twists and revelations. If not for that, Shelter would almost be perfect.
Shelter was released in March 2016 by Picador. It is Jung Yun’s debut novel.