Author: Angela Mi Young Hur
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—an achingly familiar, spectral woman in the snow—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, a sickness no less ravenous than the ancestral curse hunting her.
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: of women’s desire and fury; of magic suppressed, stolen, or punished; of the hunger for vengeance.
I must say that I did not fully believe the description that Folklorn would be a blend of many different genres, but this one is truly hard to pin down and place in a single genre. It is a captivating piece of literature that uses elements from the past to shape a person in both the present and future. It is a heavier read than I expected, but it was well-written to keep the reader interested. There are enthralling insights into topics, such as, culture, grief, abuse, and generational trauma. Additionally, is a story that makes the reader question what is real, what is going on in someone’s mind, and what is going on supernaturally.
The story starts in Antarctica with Korean-American experimental physicist Elsa Park. From the first time we meet her, I must say that this is one of the few stories where I downright disliked a character outright. For the majority of Antarctic expeditions, you not only have to go through knowledge based merits, but personality compatible tests, too, since you are stuck with your fellow researchers for extended periods of time. I honestly could not figure out how this woman could be cleared even if she was the most brilliant person on the planet as she was not likable. At times she was conceited, even at one point saying she did not need a second for an equipment check (a huge no with major experiments), and she made a lot of off-handed comments. Luckily, she does get a lot better as the story goes on, but I will admit that even a few pages in, I was almost willing to give up on this novel based on the character alone. I am glad that I stuck with the story, though, as the rest of it was a brilliant example of writing and story-telling.
While in Antarctica, Elsa starts seeing her childhood imaginary friend out of the blue. Due to other outstanding circumstances, she returns to Sweden to continue her post-doctoral work. She then learns that her mother has passed away, so she returns to her hometown in California. The story explores the secrets relating to her mother and the rest of her family. The writing used family history, culture, science (physics), and folklore to weave together into the plot. I am somewhat familiar with some Korean folklore, but there were still many new elements that were taught to me. I loved to learn the historical elements, such as the adoption relationship between Korea and Sweden.
The other main characters in the story were her brother, Chris, her father, and her eventual love interest, Oskar, were very interesting. The four of them, plus Elsa’s mother and the imaginary friend that appear throughout, were all a very interesting mix and fascinating to read about. Although I was not a huge fan of Elsa, I did enjoy her relationship with Oskar and found them to be captivating to read about. I love that through the other characters and general time invested in reading the story that a lot of Elsa’s character is revealed about how she became this way and it makes you reevaluate your initial thoughts about her. The author did a great job of chipping away the layers of Elsa’s armor to the reader and so the reader is truly getting to know the character through experience rather than through telling.
Overall, I am very glad that I took a chance on this story. My original request to read it came initially from the Korean folklore aspect alone and I am thrilled that I had the chance to read it. Although it is not the easiest book to review, due to the material and the restraint to not give away spoilers, it is a satisfying read that beautifully illustrates heavier topics. Many of these topics, even the physics itself, could have been written to be very inaccessible, but the author’s word choices and general writing help the average reader understand everything. Angela Mi Young Hur is an excellent storyteller and I would gladly read more of her works!
**I want to give a special thank you to Netgalley and the publisher, Erewhon Books, for a review copy of this enjoyable novel. The opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.**