This is a slow, quiet novel that captures readers at the start with its intensity. The stakes are high for everyone, even before we discover the tragedy that has befallen Kyung’s family. In the beginning, Kyung is already faced with the necessity of swallowing his pride and moving back in with his parents. But when Kyung’s mother shows up in his backyard, beaten and battered, Kyung knows who is to blame before the accusatory words escape her mouth. He suspects that his father, who has a history of physical abuse, is the one who has beaten her. But this time, his mother’s wounds are far more severe than any he had inflicted before. When local authorities quickly discover that Kyung’s parents, Jin and Mae, and their housekeeper were victims of a violent home invasion, Kyung is torn between his despair at what occurred and the relief that someone else is to blame.
These conflicting emotions are representative of all the conflicts that fill this novel, in addition to the physical altercations that plague this family. Kyung also has trouble relating to his wife Gillian and his son Ethan, and, despite his love for them, is so terrified that he will become his father that he instead treats them with indifference. We discover than much more than pride is at stake as Kyung fears what might befall his wife and son in their new situation.
Kyung has worked his entire life to conceal the truth of the abuse he suffered at the hands of his parents, even from Gillian. Too late, he has discovered just how detrimental this secrecy has been to his own family. Unable to explain to his wife why he fears their young son Ethan, she fears the worst form his emotional distance. The tragic home invasion has forced him to face years of fear and resentment, but his personal discoveries come far too late. While it may be possible to forgive his parents for years of abuse and emotional neglect, he is unable to hold his family together, and can only hope for a similar reconciliation with his own son in the future.
The narrative is delivered from Kyung’s point of view, a perspective that only grows more and more distorted as the book nears its end. Kyung believes that good comes from good, and that because he has never had a positive father figure, it is impossible for him to be a good father, or even a good person. “I never really had a chance, did I?” This is what he tells Craig, the head of Kyung’s department, after he sincerely offers assistance to Kyung and his family. The impossibility of changing one’s nature is demonstrated throughout the novel: through Molly, a bad girl turned preacher’s wife, who Kyung accuses of pretending; Kyung’s father, who he assumes is the perpetrator of the crimes against his mother; and Kyung’s mother, who he fears will hurt Ethan as she hurt him. By the end of the novel, of course, we see just how mistaken Kyung is. Kyung’s father, while still an abuser, connects with Ethan in a way that Kyung has never been able to. Kyung’s mother begins to plan an independent life away from Jin. And Kyung himself discovers he is able to forgive a man he once swore to kill.
Throughout the novel, Yun does an excellent job of presenting Kyung’s perspective without completely victimizing him. Despite everything he has lived through at the hands of his parents, Kyung is not completely free from fault, and Yun acknowledges that, while he may have been a victim once, his choices are entirely his own. Throughout, Yun develops these conflicting sympathies in nearly every character. This isn’t by accident, as one of the key themes of the novel is the dual nature of people, and the reality that people are not so easy to classify as “good” or “evil.”
Yun explores this duality in nearly every character in Shelter. Perhaps the only simple characters are Craig and Ethan; one because he is truly sincere in every facet of his life, and the other because he has yet to develop the kind of ugliness that requires hiding. Everyone else in the story is concealing some part of themselves from those around them. Or perhaps this is just what Kyung suspects, as it is impossible for him to conceive of anything resembling true sincerity. While Yun does not spend time showing each character’s multiple faces, she does suggest that each of them, and by extension, each of us, is hiding another person underneath themselves.
In Kyung’s case, this person is full of fear, anger, and unresolved tension. He fears that he is doomed to be the kind of person his father was, and emotionally distances himself from Gillian and Ethan in order to protect them. What he fails to admit is that this is mostly a selfish act, one that actually hurts his family more than it helps them. For Kyung, what is worse than the pain he might cause his family is becoming the man his father was, and this fear drives him to do things he might not have otherwise. In the end, it drives him away from his family and back into his father’s arms. Through his dishonesty, Kyung has failed to address what has been tormenting him all these years. This makes it impossible to move on, and guarantees that he will let his family down in ways he never wanted to. In his attempt to avoid his fate, Kyung has unwittingly fulfilled it.
At its core, this story is an examination of the seemingly unstoppable cycle of abuse and the struggles of those who fight against it. This is the context through which Yun explores the uglier faces of human nature, particularly our tendency to hide our true selves out of fear that those dark parts will overcome everything else. “Fake it till you make it,” or, if you pretend long enough to be good, maybe you will be. But Yun makes it clear that, while it is possible for people to change fundamentally, such a change is impossible to enact while we are still fighting the monsters in our past. The worst kind of dishonesty is dishonesty with ourselves, and until we shed that mask, all others are merely an insufficient bandage covering a festering wound that cannot heal.
This novel is one that will stick with you for a long time after reading, as Yun invites us to question our own duality and unresolved fears. She vividly illustrates the importance of purging ourselves of these poisons, of ripping them up by the roots. It is a messy and painful process, but the longer we hold on to them, the more likely we will become the very thing we fear most.