April 12, 2021

Angela Mi Young Hur: "Folklorn" (ARC Review)

Title: Folklorn  [on Amazon | on Goodreads]
Series: None
Author: Angela Mi Young Hur [Site | Goodreads]
Genres: Contemporary with a Twist
Year: 2021
Age: 18+
Stars: 4/5
Pros: Imaginative yet honest depiction of immigrant trauma and a woman's place/struggles in Korean culture. Rich and well-written.
Cons: Mostly gloomy. The lead remains at a distance if you haven't shared her same experiences.
WARNING! Domestic abuse. A character suffers from schizophrenia.
Will appeal to: Those who love a family saga (albeit dark) and East-Asian folklore. Those who have experienced  immigration and displacement firsthand.

Blurb: Elsa Park is a particle physicist at the top of her game, stationed at a neutrino observatory in the Antarctic, confident she's put enough distance between her ambitions and the family ghosts she's run from all her life. But it isn't long before her childhood imaginary friend comes to claim her at last. Years ago, Elsa's now-catatonic mother had warned her that the women of their line were doomed to repeat the narrative lives of their ancestors from Korean myth and legend. But beyond these ghosts, Elsa also faces a more earthly fate: the mental illness and generational trauma that run in her immigrant family. When her mother breaks her decade-long silence and tragedy strikes, Elsa must return to her childhood home in California. There, among family wrestling with their own demons, she unravels the secrets hidden in the handwritten pages of her mother’s dark stories. (Amazon excerpt)

Review: First off...DISCLAIMER: I requested this title on NetGalley and Edelweiss, and got approved for it on both sites. Thanks to Erewhon Books for providing a temporary ecopy. This didn't influence my review in any way.


I have to be honest: I expected something different when I requested this book - something where the magical realism angle was more prominent, or just incorporated in a different manner. Then again (and this is still me being honest), upon rereading the blurb after turning the last page, I realised that I hadn't been lied to or led astray, except by my own wishful thinking, since I love stories where magical realism permeates the whole narrative. I did appreciate Folklorn nevertheless, but keep in mind that I might not be the best audience for this kind of book.
Folklorn is, basically, the story of a woman (Elsa) growing up into a toxic family and experiencing different shades of racism in modern-day America, trying to establish her identity by distancing herself both from her family and her roots, and ultimately realising that the only way to become whole is to confront them both. Told in an alternation of present tense and flashbacks, peppered with mythical tales about women's sacrifice, dominated by a mother figure torn between thinking her line is doomed to repeat the tragedies of the past and hoping her daughter can break the curse, with a thread of magical realism and a dash of romance (not precisely instalove, but quite close), Folklorn is many things: a family epic with a broken center, populated by siblings who are part real, part imagined and part (maybe) lost; a bildungsroman; an immigrant saga; a testament to all the women who have been abused by their own culture; and even a physics textbook that doubles as a real-life paradigm. [...]


So, I was fascinated by this story (though its complexity may have lost me a couple of times, and it would probably benefit from a reread). On the other hand, it wasn't easy for me to relate to Elsa (or her brother, or her love interested for that matter), since I don't share her (their) background, nor any of her (their) experiences. The author did a good job of making me understand where her and her family were coming from, intellectually; the problem is, I lacked the deep connection I need for my enjoyment of a story to reach the next level. It's probably a Western culture thing, where we are quick to severe our links with the past if it becomes a burden, and to build a new identity for ourselves without acknowledging our roots, if only to stomp on them eventually. And yet, it couldn't not come into play for me. Also, Elsa's fixation with her mother's tales and her need to reconstruct them in order to understand her past (and maybe change her future) bordered on unhealthy to me, and I couldn't fathom how Oskar (her love interest) would put up with it after having known her only for a short time, most of which spent in a long-distance relationship. I understand that they share a common ground, and that he is a scholar who - by chance - is interested in the very source material Elsa is researching; then again, their relationship felt a bit forced to me, and the ultimate plot twist that linked their stories together, while nice, felt a bit convenient.
Bottom line, I don't regret reading Folklorn - despite its being a different book than I had anticipated - and I would encourage everyone interested in East-Asian lore, immigrant stories, family sagas and the female experience to try it. It was a book that I appreciated more with my head than with my heart, but it was an interesting read, with strong, often evocative writing molded around an eye-opening core.

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  1. East Asian folk lore and Korean culture- hmm sounds pretty good.

    "and to build a new identity for ourselves without acknowledging our roots, if only to stomp on them eventually." Interesting. I thnk I was expecting something different too from the first line of that blurb! My initial reaction was ooh Korean folklore meets antarctica thing but clearly it's more and very different from that. Still, it sounds like it rewards the reader who delves into it. Nice review- I think you shared your thoughts and some very valuable insights for anyone wanting to try this.

    1. It's funny how that blurb means something different for everyone despite not trying to be misleading!

      Thank you Greg! I hope I did 🙂.

  2. It's always tricky when you go into a book expecting one thing and it turns out to be a different kind of book altogether. I admire you for being able to keep this review so balanced! It sounds very complex and like the toxic family and their dynamic is very much at the core of the story. I feel like interweaving it with lots of magical realism could've only added to that story though...

    1. The magical realism angle is always present and even a driving force in a way, but at the same time it doesn't permeate the story...it's difficult to explain without spoilers.

      "I admire you for being able to keep this review so balanced!"
      Aww, is that what I did? 💚

  3. Oh no you expected one thing, but hey you still liked it :D Phew
    I am sure my mind has led me astray too

    1. Sometimes our expectation colour our books since the word go...

  4. Even though it was different than what you were expecting...it still sounds like an interesting read.

  5. Though I don't necessarily relate personally to the stories, I usually appreciate the perspective they give me on certain issues (if it's done well)

    1. I usually need to relate, but some stories are eye-opening and they couldn't be done any other way.


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