Stars: 3 out of 5
I have mixed feelings about this book and a lot of difficulty putting them in to a structured review. So I apologize in advance if this looks more like a stream of consciousness on paper than a review.
First of all, this book appealed to me because I am also an immigrant, not once, but twice. And when my parents immigrated the first time, I was only five years old. So a lot of the themes raised in this book are achingly familiar. The sense of disconnect from your original culture and the difficulty assimilating into the new one. That state of in-betweenness, where you don’t quite understand where you belong, and you don’t have any real role models. Where your family rules and traditions often clash with what you learn in school. Where both cultures seem foreign at times.
Though I must admit that I didn’t get quite as much grief for being different as the protagonist did, because I was still a white girl in a predominantly Caucasian country, even if I had a funny accent and an unpronounceable last name.
I also don’t come from a culture where familiar bonds and filial piety are taken to such an extreme. The amount of abuse and manipulation the protagonist takes from her parents, and from her brother, even to a lesser degree, is just staggering. Yet she keeps coming back to them despite (and sometimes because) of that abuse. This is toxic and destructive for the soul and psychological wellbeing of everyone involved. And as a non-Korean I couldn’t’ really understand why Elsa was willing to forgive all that abuse.
I think my biggest issue with this book is how passive Elsa is with her grief. Yes, we all have different copping mechanisms, but Elsa’s seems to be retreating into herself and not doing anything until the situation resolves itself or something prompts her into action. She compulsively reviews her mother’s stories and takes her father’s abuse in stride. Oh, and she self-medicates with her brother’s anti-psychotic drugs.
I don’t know if reluctance to seek professional help is another cultural thing, but Elsa is smart, she should see the classic symptoms of depression. Why not reach out to seek help? I bet she has an excellent health plan through the university. For fear of how others would see her? For fear of appearing weak to other people’s eyes?
I think this is where Elsa and I are fundamentally different. Where I assimilated into my adoptive culture better I guess. Because I understand her reluctance. In my native culture talking about mental health is also still a stigma and a taboo. There is no such thing as depression. You just need to go for a walk and have a good night’s sleep and get over it. And if that’s not working, you aren’t trying hard enough. Yeah… no wonder Russians drink so much… Anyway, even though I understand that reluctance, I don’t share it, because I grew up in a culture where mental health is just as important than physical health and seeking professional help for both is considered normal…
Those differences aside, I still think this is a fascinating story of family abuse, loss and cultural stigma and the exploration of Korean myths and spiritual believes was extremely well done.
PS: I received a copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.