Framed around Korean folktales, Angela Mi Young Hur’s new novel Folklorn grips the reader, not quite revealing where it is going as it delivers twists and turns, creating a web of personal and familial ghosts as the characters search for healing, redemption, forgiveness, and even love.
The narrator, a young Korean-American postdoc physicist named Elsa, has travelled all the way to the South Pole to study subatomic particles, but also to escape the trauma of her family. Part of a team working with Digital Optical Modules—crystal ball–sized domes filled with computers and sensors that are dropped into the ice to document subatomic interactions—Elsa has big plans for her career. She wants to lead her own research team discovering the secrets of neutrinos, massless particles never before seen by the human eye.
Her scientific career gets interrupted when tragedy strikes, igniting a multi-continent journey, traversing Antarctica, Sweden, and Los Angeles, as Elsa faces her past and her family’s haunting legacy.
Hur’s vivid descriptions of the settings to which Elsa travels help destabilize the already precarious sense of reality for the main character. That precarity starts off in the very beginning, when the summer months in the South Pole create a sense of timelessness. Elsa can’t sleep without the sky ever getting dark, and the arid and icy air create the conditions for ghosts to cross into Elsa’s world.
That connection between space and time continues throughout the novel, both in Elsa’s journey of discovering her family’s secrets, as well as in her memories. For instance, in a description of a road trip with her mother she took as an adolescent, Elsa’s rational mind negotiates its perception of a lake in the desert, which turns out to be a mirage. “Not a lake, just a slice of blue sky reflected by a burning highway,” Hur writes. The questioning of her perception creates an opening for even larger breaches of Elsa’s understanding of what’s real and what’s not.
Much like the way Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle uses surreal fantasy to investigate lingering trauma from World War II in Japan, the Korean War hovers over Folklorn. The generational trauma invoked from the horror of that war shows up in the abuse Elsa witnessed and experienced within her family growing up.
Elsa’s father, who saw his fortunes crumble after the war due to his own mistakes as well as unfortunate twists of fate, perpetrated abuse onto Elsa’s mother and also her much older brother, Chris, while she was growing up—one of the many negative experiences she had as a child. Part of Elsa’s journey is tied with freeing herself from the negative cycles her family keeps finding itself in again and again. She also questions how much she can forgive, and what redemption looks like, both for herself, and for her loved ones.
Passed-down trauma also manifests itself in the mental health issues she and other family members struggle with. The novel begins with moments of disruption from reality, when visions of the past merge with stories once told to Elsa long ago. As the story progresses, Elsa attempts to suss out what is real, and what is imagined. Her answers to those questions are different than what you might expect. Hur weaves together fantasy and reality so deftly that Elsa herself, and consequently the reader, have a difficult time understanding what is a hallucination, and what is something unbelievable but true. Elsa must decide first whether she wants the stories and powers that have been passed down to her, as well as whether they truly exist in the first place.
Deeply tied to this liminal space between the real world and myth is Elsa’s mother, who once told Elsa that she carries the folktales of their legacy as both a burden and honored birthright. “You and I—we are descended from women whose lives have been degraded into common folktales,” she tells her daughter. “We live their lives echoing their stories, but not their greatness—only their stupid tragedies because that is all we remember of them.” These words articulate a major theme of the book: how stories offer meaning but can come with their own price.
The legacy of the Korean War also impacts the character of Oskar, a Korean-Swedish scholar and love interest of Elsa, who was raised by white parents after living for some time in the home of a Swedish nurse turned adoption agent. Oskar acts as Elsa’s co-detective, piecing together fragments of folk stories as Elsa seeks to understand long-hidden secrets about her family. As an adoptee, Oskar has a vastly different experience of his Korean identity than Elsa does, who was brought up in a Korean-American family. As they get to know each other, they gain understanding of the pain that each of their different life experiences has brought them, and offer wisdom for each other along the way.
This is a book that asks you to release your expectations of what you know and let the story run in the direction Hur takes you, between waking and dreaming, between life and death, and between myth and history. Folklorn is a mystery about how we find meaning, even as we stare at the trauma in our lives peeking through the eyes of our loved ones and the ghosts that follow us around. As you journey along with Elsa through her discoveries, you’ll find yourself getting enveloped in this storied world.
About the Reviewer
Sheila Regan is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis. She has contributed book reviews and features for the Los Angeles Review of Books, High Country News, Lit Hub, and Minnesota Monthly, and has additional bylines with Hyperallergic, ArtForum, Bomb, the Guardian, and The Washington Post.