REVIEW: "Shelter" is a Compelling Novel of the Sometimes Chilly Bond Between Child and Parents

Shelter by Jung Yun
Picador 336 pp.

By Shalene Gupta

Can children avoid repeating the mistakes of their parents? A child’s definitions of anger, love, and discipline are molded by their parents’ actions. And when children grow up, they take this emotional legacy with them into the world and pass it down to their own children. But what happens when parents make mistakes?  Can children cast off their parents’ imprint, and if so, to what extent?

Jung Yun attempts to answer these questions in her debut novel Shelter. The bottom has dropped out of the housing market and college professor Kyung Cho, the son of Korean immigrants, is barely keeping his life together. He’s saddled with debt from student loans, splurgy vacations, and an expensive house in a Massachusetts suburb. He’s scraping by at work, and owes his job to his brilliant father—whom he hates.

A few streets away, his parents live in an even grander house stuffed with luxuries he can’t afford. They could solve all of his problems with one check, but Kyung can’t stand the thought of it. When disaster strikes, however, Kyung’s parents move in, and he is forced to confront the childhood he’d rather forget and come to terms with what it means to really build a home.

Yun has written an addictive page-turner in spare and taut prose, with impeccable pacing.  In the hands of a less discerning writer a plot so packed with tragedy after tragedy could spiral out of control — a horrific home invasion in the parents’ lavish home figures prominently, among other very low moments.  Yun, though, holds it all together admirably.  She weaves through the narrative larger questions about religion, cultural conflict, and the nature of love — and her answers are as complicated and multi-dimensional as her questions.

As skillful as Yun is, some readers might still be exhausted by the avalanche of disasters.  And there are some weaknesses in character development: while Kyung weathers all of the calamities, he remains too distant and inaccessible to the reader.  Yun tends to rely on the drama of her events to create the emotional heart of the book.

Shelter is still, however, the rare book that will captivate readers from start to finish despite, or perhaps because of, its wildly dramatic tragedies — followed by quiet redemptions.

Shalene Gupta is a writer based in Boston. A former Fortune reporter, she is currently working on a novel.