WAS IT RIGHT TO LEAVE? Was it wrong to stay? Are we better off here, or there? These are the questions that haunt the denizens of Krys Lee's Drifting House, a short story collection that traces the hard choices faced by Koreans at home and in the United States over the past half-century. From the mother who moves from Seoul to Culver City, California, in search of her lost daughter, to the laid-off South Korean worker who chooses homelessness over returning to his family in shame, to the three starving North Korean children seeking refuge in China, Lee's characters are forced to make the sorts of impossible decisions that turn regret into an indelible feature of the landscape. Each new indignity or misfortune they face stirs up new doubts: How might life be better if we left this place? Could we have averted this fate if we had never left? Lee returns repeatedly to the question of identity and outsider status, asking what it means to value your home over your personal liberty, or to value opportunity and possibility over belonging. "What if they had been the all-American family who fit into the order of things?" wonders Jenny in "The Believer," whose family is fractured by an act of violence. "Would her mother have become as sick as she had? Immigrants. Not here nor there, not this or that. Indeterminate and silenced."
Drifting House grapples with the uneven terrain of compromise, of giving up one thing for the sake of another. Yet thanks to the dexterity of Lee's prose and her ability to imbue her characters with passion and tenacity, these stories transcend any sort of predictable immigrant-experience template. An efficient storyteller who's capable of deftly portraying each character with a minimal number of brushstrokes, Lee also indulges in unrepentantly poetic outbursts, drenching readers in the occasional impressionistic downpour. In each story, Lee offers up the inner lives of her protagonists, the sensual details and the tugs of guilt, love, and contempt flowing like avant-garde jazz. Take her description of two girls playing dress-up:
The mirror in Mrs. Lim's room faithfully reflects misery and magnificence: a pyramid of her dresses, a nest of souvenirs, a portrait of Jesus hanging off a nail. A stopped wristwatch, a body's impressions still visible on the cotton you spread on the floor, the worn blade of a used razor, a cluster of black ants in the corner, the blood of a crushed mosquito staining the wall, Hana in her frilly bra and panties, and Mina, tottering, perilous in her mother's yellow platform heels, imagining the world looking at her.
Lee's description of the life of a female artist married to a wealthy painter, on the other hand, mixes minimalism with wildness:
So this was marriage. With Seongwon, Eunkang had been allowed to be herself. She had thrown occasional chunks of cement at the riot police, she had worn obnoxious colors. While friends strategized for their children's education and labored under weekly visits to the in-laws, she neglected dirty dishes, and painted with no pressure to sell.
Whatever path she chooses, Lee gets the job done. We understand who her characters are and what they want and what they dream of, and we care ab...read more