There's sibling rivalry, and then there's Janie and Hannah.
In Catherine Chung's debut novel, Forgotten Country, Jeehyun, aka Janie, is the “good” older daughter, who's getting a PhD in math because it makes her father proud. Her sister, Haejin (Hannah), left town without a word 18 months ago and hasn't spoken to her family since.
On the surface, Hannah's disappearance seems to fulfill a prophecy Janie's grandmother told her the night her sister was born: Once in every generation, since the Japanese took over Korea, a daughter has disappeared from their family.
But her parents have no time for mysticism: The girls' dad has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and is returning to Korea for treatment. Their parents want Janie, whom they blame for not watching over her little sister, to find Hannah and bring her back. Janie tries to be a dutiful daughter, but ends up committing an act of betrayal so huge that her family may not recover from it.
In “Forgotten Country,” Chung weaves together the immigrant experience with Korean history and folktales. Lest things get too mystical, she anchors her narrative with plenty of bickering and family resentment, as well as some very real heartbreak.
“I had never liked the idea of heaven – it sounded too much like one more country where everyone spoke a different language,” Janie says after a visit from her aggressively Christian aunt, who had immigrated to America years earlier.
Michigan in the 1980s wasn't exactly ground zero for cultural sensitivity. Janie gets her teeth knocked out by a fellow student, and both girls owe their English monikers to a callous principal, who tells their mother, “Your girls need names.”
When she points out that they already have names, he says “proper names,” and dubs them Janie and Hannah.
Both sisters are suspended between two cultures, unable to be fully at home in either. That's a special kind of tragedy in the eyes of their homeland: “In Korea, couples dress alike to show the world that they’re together. Families, sisters, teams, groups – delight in wearing a uniform.... Here is the lesson: nothing is more important than belonging.”
Chung, who was named one of Granta's new voices, is a sure-handed writer, and her gorgeous sentences help smooth over some plot difficulties in the latter half of the novel.
“There was something familiar about packing up our house and getting ready to move: nearly twenty years ago we had dismantled everything and come to America,” Janie says. “I had been eight years old that first time, and though no one would explain the circumstances, I knew we were running away. While my parents never used the words 'blacklist' or 'exile' or 'enemy of the state,' these were words I learned in the months before our move, though I never spoke them aloud.”
There are unanswered questions surrounding the girls' uncle and her dad's cousins, but the main problem with “Forgotten Country” is that Chung doesn't deliver on the book's biggest mystery, the one that gets the entire plot rolling: Why did Hannah walk away from her entire family?