Review: I Went to See My Father by Kyung-Sook Shin
Hon returns to her village to care for her father, discovering secrets and unacknowledged grief in her family. The novel delves into generational trauma and South Korea's history. The writing is emotional, with insights into each character's consciousness. The father-daughter relationship is endearing but also reflects the intensity of familial relationships. Kyung-Sook Shin's evocative style and Anton Hur's translation make the book likely to have an impact on world literature.
Hon, a writer, returns to J, her village, to look after her father when her mother has to travel to Seoul for a medical check-up. Her five siblings are in the city and will take care of their mother while she’s there. Back in her childhood home, Hon discovers a chest full of letters, unknown objects in several nooks and crannies, and pictures from the siblings’ graduation days. And then there is her father who cries by himself in the middle of the night.
Readers who pick up I Went to See My Father expecting the saga of a big Asian family can be reassured; the book delivers exactly that. In the footsteps of Anne Tyler’s French Braid (2022), this family has unacknowledged grief and, over generations, its members have been keeping secrets from each other. There’s Hon, who had been avoiding her family since the death of her daughter, her parents, who had begun keeping secrets since their children moved out, and Hon’s siblings, who are forced by familial expectations to be what they aren’t. There is enough love for members to sacrifice their lives for the family but very little communication. Kyung-Sook Shin captures this awkwardness, effectively bringing out the distinctive character of a household where avoidance is abundant.
Spread over 285 pages, the novel is more than just the story of Hon’s family. Much like Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (2004) which brings in John Ames’ and Rev Robert Boughton’s America, I Went to See My Father takes in Hon’s father’s past and that of her grandfather, both of which are embedded in South Korea’s history of war and loss. The coming of the Korean War to the village, Hon’s father’s escape, the memory that remains etched on his body, and the circumstances that lead to his marriage with Hon’s mother reminds the protagonist of the nature of generational trauma and its propensity to endure even though it is rarely spoken of.
The writing is replete with emotions despite the characters’ inhibitions about expressing them. Every sentence provides an insight into someone’s consciousness. “I actually wish my family did not read my work. It’s harder for me to explain why that is but I suppose I’m embarrassed,” thinks Hon who finds something to hold on to through the letters she reads, the things she hears about her father from her family, and her own ability to pour her melancholy into her writing.
All of this makes the reader yearn to read more of what Hon does in the present and how it affects her relationship with her father. The focus on the past, however, dominates much of the book with only the first and last chapters staying tethered to the present. Unsurprisingly, it is in these sections that the reader is treated to the story’s most picturesque scene with the father and daughter sitting by the dyke watching plums fill the hills as they reflect on all the loss in their own lives and in that of those to come.
The success of the father-daughter story doesn’t lie only in its endearing moments. Rather, in a manner akin to Annie Ernaux’s A Man’s Place (1983), Shin’s novel dispels the sweetness often attached to such a relationship. Hon is cold toward her father and frustrated at his treatment of her, but also feels empathy for how he struggled to bring up six children. All of it reflects the intensity of close familial relationships that might have an undertow even if there are no outward blow-ups.
Kyung-Sook Shin’s evocative style is transmissive. Even as they read it, readers might feel compelled to tell the story of their own families. Of course, few would be able to replicate her creative energy and great skill at depicting a nation’s history through a story of private struggles. Anton Hur’s able translation also helps I Went to See My Father cross boundaries of language and the imagination. Like Shin’s earlier book, Please Look After Mom (2008), this one too seems set to have an impact on world literature.
Rahul Singh is a PhD candidate in Sociology at Presidency University, Kolkata.