A centenarian dies in the first few pages of Jimin Han’s second novel, THE APOLOGY (Little, Brown, 289 pp., $28), which proceeds to immerse us in Hak Jeonga’s history as it reaches from South Korea to the United States, and into a metaphysical afterlife. Jeonga’s narration is sharp and witty and a touch sly as she describes her present, disembodied state — the in-between, purgatory-like space her consciousness now occupies — as well as the events that led to her death.
A few days before her death, Jeonga is living in an apartment in Seoul when her 110-year-old sister, Mina, receives a letter from Ohio, prompting them and their 108-year-old sister, Aera, to travel there to prevent secrets, hidden for generations, from being revealed. Along their journey — filled with darkly humorous bickering, worrying over anti-aging skin care and designer clothes, and their competitiveness about their children’s accomplishments — the sisters reveal how their fourth sister Seona’s disappearance from their lives 89 years earlier has affected them in different ways.
“Seona is the only one who lived the way she wanted,” Mina says, “the happiest of us all.” But Jeonga has “never gotten over how Seona herself and her daughter had not come south during the Korean War,” Han writes. The consequences of Seona’s decision reverberate for generations, beginning with their businessman father’s premature death six months later.
Confronting these consequences head-on at the very end of her life, Jeonga takes action to preserve her family name and offer financial support to those in her lineage who need it most — just as her father would have wanted. The narrative jumps back in time to follow the Hak family as it courses through diaspora, class divide and history. “An epilogue was what I wanted in my own life,” Jeonga thinks early on. “I wanted a summary. I wanted an overview. I wanted to see what happened.” This is an enthralling multigenerational tale of familial secrets, trauma and healing.
What do you do when your child moves out of the house, your 23-year marriage has run its course and you find yourself on autopilot, realizing the excitement of your life is in the past? For 49-year-old Bea, the protagonist of Don Gillmor’s new novel, BREAKING AND ENTERING (Biblioasis, 291 pp., paperback, $18.95), the answer is: You learn how to pick a lock.
It’s a particularly hot Toronto summer and Bea’s art gallery is “almost deserted” of patrons. Multiple days a week she visits her aging mother in a nursing home — “bright, airy, unaffordable, difficult to get to, guilt-laden” and bearing “an optimistic name — Galileo Sunrise.” Her mother’s slow deterioration into dementia plunges Bea deeper into melancholy. Killing time alone at the gallery one day, feeling “how claustrophobic her life had become … how she had somehow slipped into a modern coma,” Bea Googles the word “escape.” A video providing instruction on “how to escape and evade forced captivity” promises to inject adventure and intrigue back into her daily routine.
Moving from a benign hobby into the titular crime, Bea finds her curiosity fueled by her need to uncover the facade of curated lives. She judges her victims’ homes and, in one instance, offers financial advice, in a letter, to a couple living beyond their means. It isn’t until she begins investigating her own past, though, that she unearths a family secret her mother is only barely able to remember.
For all her moral superiority, Bea is very much aware of her own private desperation — in the face of her distance from her husband and son, her sister’s endless interrogations regarding their mother’s care.
In a quiet story that takes place over only a few summer months, the Canadian author deftly converges doubt, infidelity and the fragility of family in a narrative that is both thrilling and relatable.
Portia, the protagonist of Genevieve Plunkett’s first novel, IN THE LOBBY OF THE DREAM HOTEL (Catapult, 354 pp., $28), remembers visiting a children’s museum in her youth, trying to navigate her way through the tunnels of a giant human heart, “getting lost inside the purple arteries.” The memory provides an apt metaphor for the experience of reading this novel, feeling ourselves enveloped in the darkness of a mind struggling with bipolar disorder and domestic unrest.
Living with her controlling, manipulative and yet devoted husband, Nathan, in Vermont, Portia spends her days looking after their young son, Julian, and every Sunday she practices guitar in a band called Poor Alice at her childhood friend Carrie’s house. When she happens upon a book of letters written by her late, “favorite musician” Alby Porter — who died the year Julian was born — she reads it over and over again “while she pushed Julian on the swing, tucked the book under Julian’s pillow, then read by the light of her phone while she lay with him, waiting for him to fall asleep.”
Having secretly stopped taking the medication that “made her want to crawl out of her skin,” Portia begins to believe that Porter visited her during Julian’s birth, “while her body was literally spread open. The doctors had removed the baby, but the spirit of Alby Porter had been there to replace it with something else. Maybe a piece of his talent had broken off and been transferred to her, just as he wrote about in his letters.”
Told from Portia’s and then her lover Theo’s unreliable perspectives, the close third-person narration takes us through a nonlinear story that revisits past events from multiple angles. Even when it comes to Nathan and Theo, perception and memory are multilayered and flawed.
Plunkett applies a soft touch when rendering minds in turmoil, offering both reader and character relief through the escapes of music, love and small-town landscape.
Wadzanai Mhute is a reporter, editor and short-story writer whose work has appeared in Oprah Daily, The Guardian, Essence magazine and other publications.