It blows me away that Shelter is Jung Yun’s debut book. Her writing is so nimble it could almost come across as simple or straightforward, yet it is anything but. She uses language to lull you into a sense of comfort and then, with a smooth twist of a phrase, thrusts you back into the violence and despair that is at the heart of this novel. Reading Shelter is like giving your friend a hug, only to realize, too late, that she’s slipped a switchblade between your ribs.
The book opens with the thirty-six-year-old Kyung Cho, a middling professor and son of two Korean immigrants. He and his wife, Gillian, are sinking in debt and have decided to sell their house. But during the consultation with their realtor, Kyung’s mom wanders into their yard, naked, bleeding, and hysterical. In the days that follow, Kyung is thrust back into the center of his parents’ lives, and as we learn more about the Cho family, it is apparent each character is living with hidden resentments and smothered emotions that threaten to boil over and break them apart.
Yun is masterful at creating dynamic characters that challenge the way we view people. Her protagonists are so flawed, her bad guys so redeemable that you read this book not knowing which is which. As a reader, I’m rarely interested in the serial killer who was born without empathy. I want my good guy with an overinflated ego and bad breath. I want my murderer to take in stray kittens and cook dinner for his mother every Sunday night. Because that’s how people are the in the real world. No one is all good or all bad.
Yun treats every aspect of her book with this same sense of curiosity and humility. She proposes that each story has many sides, each side valid. She explores, with thoughtfulness and agility, what it means to be part of a family, the possibility of people to change, and the sharp contrast between people’s public and private lives. With all this wrapped in a captivating plot, Shelter is a compelling and addicting read.
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