A genre-defying, continents-spanning saga of Korean myth, scientific discovery, and the abiding love that binds even the most broken of families.
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.
From Sparks Fellow, Tin House alumna, and Harvard graduate Angela Mi Young Hur, Folklorn is a wondrous and necessary exploration of the myths we inherit and those we fashion for ourselves.
Title: Folklorn | Author: Angela Mi Young Hur | Publisher: Erewhon Books | Pub. Date: 27 April 2021 | Pages: 416 | ISBN: 9781645660163 | Genre: Literary Fantasy | Language: English | Source: Netgalley | Starred Review
Sometimes, I’ll come across a book where putting my thoughts and feelings into words is a challenge, not because I disliked the book, but because there’s just SO MUCH to unpack and I question whether I’m the right person for the job. Folklorn is one such book.
Folklorn follows Elsa Park, a Korean-American experimental physicist, as she tries to find her place in the world while also unraveling the past she’s inherited from her parents, and especially from her mother. Her story takes us from the isolation of Antarctica to the foreignness of Sweden to the claustrophobia of her hometown in California. With each location and Elsa’s relationship and history with its inhabitants, the reader gains insight into not only Elsa’s character, but the folklore that ties her to her Korean ancestry.
I’ll admit, I have complicated feelings on Folklorn. Elsa is, simply put, not a very likeable character. She pushes people away, through brash words that are sometimes tinged with condescension and superiority. I found her to be downright off-putting for the first maybe quarter of the novel. But, as the plot wore on and more of her history was revealed, I was able to connect and sympathize with her, even if I didn’t particularly like her. There was also something immediately gripping about her connection to Oskar, and I loved watching that connection grow and unfold.
Past my sentiments about Elsa as a character, Folklorn is a beautifully written novel. There was something so compelling about the prose that, even when the plot itself wasn’t necessarily the most riveting, I found myself constantly thinking about it and itching to get back to it when I wasn’t reading. Within the framework of this novel which often focuses more on the fantastical with Elsa’s imaginary friend and the folktales left behind by her mother, the reader is also given glimpses of historical details, along with a heavy dose of physics talk (which, I won’t lie, went nearly entirely over my head). The folklore elements were by far my favourite. Korean culture and folklore is admittedly not something I’m well versed in, so I loved having the opportunity to immerse myself, however briefly, in this culture via the snippets of folk tales as well as the historical elements that the author includes in Elsa’s journey. I found myself looking up some of the historical elements, like the connection between the Scandinavian hospital and Sweden’s high rate of Korean adoptees, because I had no idea that these things had occurred.
This novel definitely leans hard into its literary elements, rather than being a full-on fantasy novel, but it blends so many elements from different genres that it defies being placed neatly into any one box. While I did find that there were a couple of lulls in the story, Folklorn was overall an engrossing tale of finding one’s place while acknowledging the people and events that shape you.
You can purchase a copy of this book via your normal retailer, but please consider purchasing it from a local indie bookshop instead. It can be found here at Indiebound or at Bookshop. Please note the Bookshop link is an affiliate link and each purchase you make through it helps to support Sci-Fi & Scary and keep the site running.
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