I read the greater part of Jung Yun's "Shelter" in a 14-hour sitting, interrupted by only five hours of sleep. I was on a trip, with other people, but I couldn't do anything until I was finished; Yun's debut may be a family drama, but it has all the tension of a thriller. It's a sharp knife of a novel — powerful and damaging, and so structurally elegant that it slides right in.
Kyung Cho is a decidedly unheroic protagonist, a 36-year-old man saddled with debt and bitterness, uneasy in his roles as husband, father and son. Though he lives minutes away from his parents outside Boston — where father and son teach at the same college, he in his father's shadow — theirs is a strained relationship.
"He's not a good son; he knows this already. But he's the best possible version of the son they raised him to be. Present, but not adoring. Helpful, but not generous. Obligated and nothing more." He was raised in a wealthy Korean Christian household, but his childhood was marred by domestic violence.
When the adult Kyung finds his mother, Mae, fleeing toward his house, naked and injured, Kyung's first instinct is to blame his father, Jin. At 18, Kyung threatened to kill him if he ever raised a hand against Mae again, and though Jin stopped beating her, Kyung has always doubted his father's capacity for change. But in this case, Jin is also a victim of violence; he is discovered beaten bloody in his torn-apart house, attacked — along with Mae and their housekeeper, Marina — in a harrowing home invasion.
With great dread and joyless duty, Kyung opens his house to his parents (and a friendless Marina, who only adds to the tension) while they figure out what to do with their ruined mansion. The close quarters put pressure on relationships that are barely strong enough to handle a straight gaze and an honest conversation — "Avoidance was always the price of their détente."
Kyung's obligations are clear, rooted in "the world he never fully left." Despite coming to the States at age 4 and speaking almost no Korean, Kyung doesn't feel fully American and approaches his parents as a Korean son — cutting them out of his life is unthinkable; even enforcing boundaries fills him with guilt.
"Children are supposed to honor their parents," Jin tells him. "And parents are supposed to take care of their children," he snaps back. There's a breakdown here, a confusion of familial contracts, with Kyung getting the short end of the stick.
It doesn't help that he feels insecure as the head of his own family, unable to provide financial stability, and — without a useful role model in his childhood — frightened and clumsy in his approach to marriage and fatherhood.
His wife, Gillian, is non-Korean, from a Massachusetts Irish family, and he suspects his cop in-laws have never liked him because of his race. On the flip side, Kyung chose a white woman in part to distance himself from the rules of his own Korean upbringing: "He didn't want to subject someone he loved, or even vaguely liked, to the life of a foot servant like his mother. A few times a year, Gillian plays the part to keep his parents content, but a Korean wife would never be able to pick and choose when to be Korean."
But when Jin and Mae move in, the transition is easier on his family than Kyung feared — Jin helps with the bills and adores Kyung's 4-year-old son, Ethan. Yet Jin's presence fills Kyung with resentment and anxiety. He hates that his wife appreciates his father and tries to see the best in him; he can't handle the growing attachment between his son and his father, what he sees as the "slow siphoning off from Kyung to Jin."
Kyung fares no better with Mae. Instead of uniting them in shared misery, Jin's abuse drove mother and son apart, and the trauma of the home invasion threatens to torch what remains of their relationship. Never kind, Mae now becomes cruel; victim and victimizer, she is one of the most complex, difficult characters I've come across in contemporary fiction.
"Shelter" derives almost all of its drama from family dynamics, yet it manages to read like the most suspenseful of thrillers. Yes, the family arcs involve plenty of violence — as well as a few truly jaw-dropping turns of events — but the shifts and swerves of these relationships have their own intense propulsion that compels on a purely emotional plane. None of Yun's characters are particularly likable; some of them cross lines that seem to preclude forgiveness. But even the monsters are recognizably human, and the Cho family's redemption remains worth hoping for, even when it seems impossible and undeserved.
Yun has written the rare novel that starts with a strong premise and gets better and richer with every page, each scene perfectly selected, building on the last. The language, at first blush plain and functional, reveals itself as the right medium for a story of unusual urgency — not simple but bony, spare and precise. Like the writer's version of a no-hitter, "Shelter" is a marvel of skill and execution, tautly constructed and played without mercy.
Picador: 336 pp., $26
Cha is the author, most recently, of the novel "Dead Soon Enough."