Several of the stories span years, but Sestanovich’s gift is to make ordinary moments shine brightly. In “Wants and Needs,” Val’s 19-year-old, hemp-wearing “sort-of stepbrother” comes to stay with her in New York. He has an ease in the world that she lacks, and her affection for him is muddled with attraction. When he gets food poisoning, she sits with him on the bathroom floor as he vomits. She gently applies Vaseline to his cracked lips, ready to tend to him for days. It’s a fraught moment, vibrating with possibility. But, oblivious, he recovers and heads out cheerfully for a bike ride, and the reader misses him as much as Val does.
By Choi Eunyoung
Translated by Sung Ryu
261 pp. Penguin Books. Paper, $17.
The characters in Choi’s insightful and deeply felt collection cannot help revisiting their memories. In “Hanji and Youngju,” a young man and woman fall in love during their time volunteering at a French monastery, but are unable to express it to each other before they part ways forever. “Memory is a talent,” Youngju’s grandmother has warned her. “But it’s a painful one. … Happy memories seem like jewels when in fact they’re burning charcoal.” Throughout the collection, love and yearning are unspoken and leave long contrails in the lives of the characters, who attempt, by remembering, to say what they left unsaid.
Large historical crises form a thrumming undercurrent to the lives of these ordinary individuals: the role of South Korea in the Vietnam War, the imprisonment and torture of suspected communists under President Park Chung-hee, the tragic 2014 sinking of the MV Sewol ferry, which resulted in the deaths of 304 people, most of them high school students.
In the moving story “Xin Chào, Xin Chào,” a Korean family new to Germany finds a warm welcome in the home of Vietnamese expats. The families meet weekly, share meals and songs and play games, and the unnamed 13-year-old protagonist marvels at the tenderness her unhappy parents are able to show each other in the company of the Nguyens. “I don’t know how it was possible for so many hearts to bond in kindness.” One night at dinner, proud of the history she learned in her Korean school, she announces that “Korea never invaded any country. … We never hurt anybody.” When it is revealed that Mrs. Nguyen’s family was massacred by Korean soldiers and the adults begin to argue about their countries’ histories, the bonds between the families are severed, leaving only sadness at what they’ve all lost.
Choi leaves the reader with moments that are equal parts jewel and hot coal: A girl looks on as a Japanese exchange student charms the grandfather who has always rejected her, grieving parents who have kept the death of their daughter from her ailing grandmother cannot keep up the act, a child watches longingly as the one friend who has been kind to her walks away forever. Each of these moments is a painful gift.