Author: Jung Yun
Published: March 15, 2016
Rating: 4.5 Stars
Mystery/Thriller | 336 pages | Published by Picador
Jung Yun’s debut novel, Shelter, is one of the most surprising and exciting books I have read in 2016. It tells a dark and gripping tale that is dramatic yet unpredictable with complex and interesting characters. Yung is easily my favorite debut author published in 2016. She writes an excellent emotional and psychological thriller and I look forward to reading her future work.
The story centers around Kyung and Gillian Cho, a couple living under the crippling debt that they amassed over years of student loans and lavish vacations. Predictably, the illusory bubble of safety they built around themselves soon bursts during the 2008 American financial crisis. Their home is no longer a symbol of stability and security, but one of stress and crisis. Eventually, they realize they may have to sell their home to cover some of the debt. And so, the novel opens with a visit from a real estate agent who is there to assess the value of their home.
Shelter opens in a very safe and mundane fashion, but the plot is soon catapulted into the exciting realms of the Mystery and Thriller genres. One moment Kyung and Gillian are showing off their unremarkable home to the real estate agent for assessment and the next Kyung’s mother, Mae, appears in his back yard — naked, distraught, and visibly abused. Something horrible has happened to her, something unspeakably evil and senseless that will forever change the lives of the entire family.
The plot is gripping, the family secrets fascinating, and the suspense is top-notch. But what I enjoyed most was Kyung’s emotional growth and development throughout the novel. We see and understand his flaws, his desires and motivations and I really felt like I grew to know him intimately. I know that an author has succeeded in telling her story when I begin to care about the people in that story, flaws and all.
And there certainly are many flawed characters in this novel. Kyun’s relationship with his parents is fractured and seemingly irreparable. His father, Jin, was cruel and physically abused his mother, who in turn took out her frustrations on Kyung. Kyung understands the reaction, yet he cannot forgive either of them for denying him the childhood he deserved. Much of his adult life is spent avoiding his parents, doing the absolute minimum to maintain a relationship with them and still be considered their son. So imagine Kyung’s distress when he must take his parents in and offer them shelter after their home is invaded and they suffer gruesome violence and indignities.
Perhaps I have encroached upon spoiler territory, but I felt it necessary to explain some of the family dynamics because that is what makes this novel so great. The complex relationship between Kyung and his parents is explored fully, realistically, and it frankly steals the show. That relationship alone explores interesting themes and asks questions such as: Are parents entitled to their children’s respect, or must they earn it? Do we know who our parents really are? Should we allow those who have wronged us a chance to redeem themselves? These are all important and poignant questions that add another layer of nuance to an already fantastic story with a killer plot that’s full of surprises and you won’t want to stop reading. So please read it soon!