Cover Image: Folklorn

Folklorn

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🎀🎀🎀🎀🎀 (five stars as rated in red ribbons trailing along behind your friend each time she visits)

Stationed at a research center on Antarctica, Elsa Park is confident that she’s finally put as much distance as she can between her and the generational trauma of her Korean-American family. When a “ghost” from her past reappears unexpectedly, Elsa must come to terms with her history – both myth and fact – whether she’s ready to or not.

Folklorn is an exploration of diaspora, identity and self love at it’s most revolutionary. The experiences – both real and imagined – of the protagonist, Elsa, as well as her brother, Chris, her parents and particularly that of her friend, Oskar are all written, even at their worst with so much compassion. And while the pain was visceral at moments, it does ultimately lead to a place of healing that is deeply deserved by the characters and was profoundly satisfying for me as the reader. For me, of course, the best part of this book was getting to share it with my friends (for whom similar stories and experiences of the Asian diaspora are starkly underrepresented in publishing) relate and empathize with Folklorn so deeply. There really is no “reviewing” an experience like that.

Oskar was easily my favorite character (though the more I look back on the book I find myself really empathizing with Chris as well). Described by my friend Moon as the “hottest Korean in fiction as of now,” I was enamored with the acceptance and empathy that Oskar held for Elsa even when she could not find the will to feel it for herself. From a mental health standpoint, I hold deep appreciation for Oskar’s because of his insistence on Elsa’s value and attractiveness to him even when she was clearly not healthy. Love is not something to be withdrawn when we are at our worst. And we are not only worthy of it once we’ve found the strength – more often resources – to “fix ourselves.” The Park family exemplifies how much of a privilege the idea of “mental health” can truly be as well as the weight of generational trauma. This aspect of Elsa and Oskar’s arc together, in particular, really affected me personally.

✨ Rep in this book: Multiple East Asian characters, gay supporting characters</p>

✨ Content warnings for this book: drowning, death of a parent, racism, domestic abuse, violence
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First I want to thank Netgalley and the author for giving me an ARC of this book. 

Elsa is a scientist that is working in Antarctica when things start to go weird for her. She sees another Korean woman that she doesn’t recognize, but yet… she does. Once back in Sweden, she realizes that it is her old imaginary friend that has come back to her. She wonders why all of a sudden this happens out of nowhere until she gets the dreaded call from her brother telling she must come back home (don’t want there to be spoilers). She is soon hit with the reality of her brothers illness and her fathers rage that filled her childhood. She starts to lose herself in her mothers old Korean myths and is now on a mission to figure out what her mother was hiding and why.

I first want to start off by saying there is A LOT of trigger warnings in this book that I did not realize prior to reading it. Going back to the description of the book, I see there is mental illness listed its at the very bottom and honestly the first few lines of the description are what grabbed my attention and I jumped right into this book. So here is my warning to you: LOTS of trigger warnings about mental illness and not just a specific kind, but everything. Lots of abuse, trauma and loss in this book.

I think it is hard for me to really rate this book because it was wonderfully written but there is a lot about it that I thought would be different. I don’t want to say that this book wasn’t for me, because truthfully it was, just parts of it I felt “Meh”. 

 There is tons and tons of scientific data talk. I honestly skipped a lot of this simply because I wanted the mystery and the myths. I felt that I needed to be there and clearly the author did her research, but maybe too much? If you love science, you will love everything she added. If you can get past that (which is a good chunk of the story) I think you could really enjoy the book. 

I wish that she would have focused more on the myths and the whole “mom broke the circle” I guess I was a bit confused on how she broke the chain? By telling her daughter the stories? That didn’t seem like the right answer but the only one I could come up with. I really like the mystery and I think the author laid it out very well to keep you hooked. I also now want to live in Sweden. I would say about 50% or more of the book is based here and the most significant part of this book is held in the most dreamy of islands in Sweden. We get a really good look at Elsas life as an immigrant and I think it was really enlightening and sad to have to read how hard it was for not only her family, but specifically her brother.

 I honestly was very confused on if the myths were “true” or if she was just mentally ill. I think this is really hard for me as a reader to understand because I am left with so many questions. I am assuming the author did this because Elsa did not know if she was ill, there for you do not get to know either. But then at the end I second guessed myself so I truly do not know.

The ending was heart breaking and I honestly did not think the author would do that to her readers. I would not say it was a bad ending, just a heart breaking one. I was really hoping this book would be more about a “curse” and myth than a sad book about mental illness. Regardless, I couldn’t put this book down. It was different than anything I have read before and it was very refreshing even though it was so sad.
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This story is unlike anything I've read before.
It took me quite awhile to get through the novel but I'm glad I took my time as it allowed me to take in all the elements I was reading and have them sit with me.
There is so many layers. In some parts it feels reminiscent of The Vegetarian by Han Kang and The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath but mostly it's just completely different.
It explores grief, mental health, family relations, race, folklore and physics. Everything feels well explored and put together.
Elsa is a very strange character but she's quite loveable and really grows on you. She's so complex and feels so real.
I knew very little about Korean folk tales so it it was really fascinating to learn about them. It was also really interesting to hear about the experience of being part of a Korean immigrant family.
The choice to parallel physics' ghost neutrinos and a potentially paranormal ghostly character was really fascinating. It gave this connection between the sciences and arts that I feel like is often missing.
I feel like have more to say but nothing is coming to me know. Highly recommend!
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This book is nothing short of a masterpiece. It weaves together science, history, and magic to tell a truly fascinating story. I found myself drawn into Elsa's world from the first chapter and the story kept me gripped throughout. I especially loved the folk tale retellings throughout the novel to add to that sense of history and heritage. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone that loves magical realism and science fantasy.
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Folklorn is a beautiful yet dense novel, utilizing Korean mythology and magical realism to tell a story of intergenerational trauma, mental illness and family secrets. The story follows Elsa, a doctoral physics researcher who divides her time between the Antarctic and Sweden, chasing elusive ghost particles. Early on, she becomes haunted by another much more tangible ghost, a young woman with red ribbon in her hair that she describes as “my friend”. What follows is an ambitious international saga, that sends Elsa on an emotional journey to uncover hidden family secrets, and heal deep familial wounds- all with her friend in tow.

While lyrical and deeply emotive, I found the prose to be challenging and at times too obtuse, leading me to consume the novel in smaller bites, rather than becoming wholly engrossed by the story.  The plot itself was clearly well-researched and expansive, covering Swedish immigration, to the Korean War, to esoteric scientific concepts. Ultimately, I felt disconnected from Elsa, and found myself admiring her journey from a far rather then becoming wholly invested in her quest for self and familial discovery. I would have loved to have spent more time with her unpacking the revelations made about herself and her mother, and much less time following the men in her life. 

All in all, Folklorn is an ambitious and expansive work of magical realism, that defies true genre categorization. While it did not entirely resonate with me, this is the kind of impassioned, gutsy literary fiction I am so happy is being written.

Many thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
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TL;DR: A one-of-a-kind mythological psychological thriller about mental illness, marginalized racial and ethnic identity, and nerdy academics with family trauma. My rating: 4 of 5 stars

CW: Mental illness, intimate partner violence, racism (including slurs)

Folklorn is epicly haunting. It opens in Antarctica, where a young Korean woman postdoc is researching subatomic particles. Almost immediately it takes on some serious psychological thriller vibes when the main character, Elsa, starts hallucinating her childhood imaginary friend. As the story unfolds, reality and myth intermingle as the reader struggles to determine which memories and perceptions are based in fact, fantasy, or mental illness. 

This is ultimately a story about 1.) mental illness and trauma in an immigrant family and 2.) Korean identity. When Elsa returns home due to a family emergency, she is confronted with the trauma of her childhood--her mother’s mental illness, her father’s physical abuse, her brother’s self-sacrificing resentment in the name of duty to family. Compelled by visions and suspicion, Elsa follows folkloric clues to uncover her mother’s dark secrets.

In terms of identity, the main character is a second generation Korean American whose parents fled to LA during the war. As an adult, she traded one experience of other-ness in a majority white culture for another when she moved to Sweden. Her love interest, Oskar, on the other hand, is a Korean Swede who was brought to Sweden as a young child and adopted by a white Swedish family. Besides their different experiences of being Korean, they also have very different approaches to the world. Oskar is a humanities scholar through and through. As he helps Elsa parse through the Korean folktales passed down from her mother, Oskar opens her mind to ways of knowing beyond the hard sciences. Their differences in experience and outlook make their connection really compelling to read.

When Elsa returns home due to a emergency, she is confronted with the trauma of her childhood--her mother’s mental illness, her father’s physical abuse, her brother’s self-sacrificing resentment in the name of duty to family. Plagued by visions and suspicion, Elsa feels compelled to stay in LA and uncover her mother’s dark secrets.

Folklorn is unlike anything I’ve read before, and for that reason alone, I would recommend it. Angela Mi Young Hur blends genres, themes, myths in uniquely intriguing ways.
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Angela Mi Young Hur’s self-described “literary/spiritual debut” is an epic novel, following particle physicist Elsa, as she attempts to navigate her academic career, love life, and unconventional family history. In Elsa’s youth, her mother often spoke of disturbing folktales, and the associated fate that beheld women in their family. When Elsa’s mother dies, leaving hints at an estranged sibling, Elsa embarks on a complex journey attempting to make sense of her past, before she can consider her future. 

The contrast between the “hard” science of Elsa’s studies and her supernatural heritage are very interesting. Elsa is clearly a character stuck between two opposing worlds, which contributes to her internal struggles. She does not find the answers science so readily supplies when she delves into her past.

There is no doubt that Folklorn is sprawling, given it takes place in many geographical locations. However, I found this location-hopping detracted from the narrative. Elsa is totally invested in this journey; I was more interested in where she was emotionally rather than physically. However, given some thought, this may reflect the sense of displacement immigrants often feel, which is a big theme throughout the novel.

Some of the conversations in Folklorn seemed a little unnatural. Angela Mi Young Hur is clearly a fiercely intelligent author, with a lot of knowledge she wants to share with the reader, but it sometimes feels a little forced. Some of the dialogue between Elsa and her paramour Oskar falls into this category, although I appreciate they are trying to educate each other in their respective fields of expertise. 

Elsa is an incredibly likeable, flawed character. Her relationship with her brother is truly heartwarming, and completely rings true. And I’m always a fan of imaginary friend/ghost characters, which is another big part of this book.

I mostly enjoyed Folklorn, as it covered a lot of my bases (female protagonist, folklore, supernatural elements), but I found the more “scientific” aspects of the novel uninteresting, and at worst superfluous. I enjoyed getting to know the central characters more than the story itself.
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I tried to read this, but gave up about 1/4 of the way through.  It was definitely a DNF for me.  I would still read more by the author.  However, I just didn't connect with this story.

2/5 Stars
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DNF at 12% - There is too much going on for me here. Perhaps it's the stream of consciousness-esque writing style, as one minute the protagonist is commenting on someone's clothes and the next she's taken a deep dive into memories of family. Then she's revisiting some mythology and finally she's talking about her "imaginary friend," who I assume is going to actually be that folklore character from she was talking about a few pages ago. 
There are a lot of details, but the details are only what the protagonist takes in. She perseverates a lot. 
Again, I'm sure there will be a lot of people who fall in love with this novel for good reason. The protagonist is a Korean American woman studying speculative physics on the South Pole. She talks a lot about her family upbringing and what it was like growing up Korean American. She's got a lot going on inside her mind, potentially some unaddressed mental illness.  There's a lot going on! It was just too overwhelming for me to invest myself in it.
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I am a little torn by this book and how to review it; I loved the way Hur paints this complicated picture of familial ties and misunderstandings but I just couldn't get situated in the whole setting. I was confused from the get-go where the story was picking off -- are we in the future? Are we in a post-apocalyptic world? That confusion along with the ghosts of the past and folklore really threw me off. I only connected with the book about halfway in when Elsa finally returns home for a family emergency. I also want to be cognizant that my lack of knowledge for Korean folklore may have hindered me from connecting with the main character and Elsa's overall quest to find truth from the old stories. I got lost in the physics' analogies (what is a neutrino!) and didn't really care for all the science stuff BUT it's still freakin' awesome to have a Korean American female protag who is a kick-ass physicist. 

With all this said, I really do think the book needs props for the way it names the good intentions and missed expectations of first-generation Asian immigrants for their progeny. Yes, it's a trope when it's simplified but this book shows how complicated families are and how complicated their dreams are for the second-generation. 

There's also so much in this book that addresses the Asian American identity struggle: "I always felt like a shapeshifter too --moving across America, across class, from Gardena to my blue-blood patrician schools, and now among the NordicTrackers. But it's not code-switching--I don't adapt in order to fit in or translate myself back and forth. I can't peel off my Asian face anyway. But how else to explain why my skin feels false, ill-fitting or suffocating--depending on which borders and spaces I cross?" 

Some of the character dynamics confused me and maybe it was intentionally vague to keep readers' on their toes. The plot has you guessing who is telling lies to whom: was Elsa's mom truly delusional or is Chris the one who is manipulating the family? Is their father violent and evil or was he just misunderstood? There's a lot of nuance to each character and Hur did that exceptionally well. I didn't understand Oskar's push to show up every time even though he had been burned and ghosted by Elsa repeatedly -- that was probably the one storyline I feel could have been eliminated but it also felt like his presence in the story was a relief from all the other storylines. 

I think I'll end here: if you're okay with the natural and spiritual worlds blending and you're comfortable with science-talk, this is the book to pick up.
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I’m always a sucker for books where immigrant children attempt to understand their parents, because what am I if not a raging masochist. Folklorn took a unique approach to that kind of story, couching the narrative in magical realism and folktales. 

There were several things that worked for me with this book— it was incredibly well-researched and thoughtful down to the last detail. The book spans three continents and pays close attention to each setting. The spooky elements of the story were delicately handled. The narrator was so dry and acerbic and equal parts self aware and absolutely delusional. The resolution sort of broke my heart but I loved how it did. The conundrum of trying to figure out how much of you is shaped by your culture versus revealing some essential part of you was explored really beautifully. The brother character fascinated me.

Things that didn’t work- pacing. I think it dragged in several places— it took me weeks to read this just to push ahead in parts where I felt disconnected from the narrator and uninvested in the events. 

Still, a solid read, and an interesting approach to a narrative I’ve seen in different forms before. Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for my unbiased opinion!
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The way Elsa describes her life serves as a pretty good description of the book:
"I'd grown up thinking of my life as some immigrant's kid bildungsroman, but then things took a sci-fi supernatural turn in Antarctica with some recent feathery flourishes of gothic horror. Now I'm tripping into a rom-com set-up."

Folklorn is a genre bending book that follows Elsa Park, a Korean-American physicist that studies sterile neutrinos ("the ghost particle's ghost") as she tries to de-mystify a family curse about folklore and destiny, all while navigating being a foreigner abroad, family tragedies, a child-hood imaginary friend resurfacing, and major career pivots.

This book was witty, reflective, and often funny, too. Although the book has a slow start (in which I admittedly found Elsa insufferable), I quickly grew attached to both her and her story. This book made me interested in learning more about Korean mythology, indulged me in providing interesting facts about physics and history, and forced me to reflect on my own identity and familial relations.

Although my family's story is so different than Elsa's, I found her story so incredible relatable. I think this book is the best fictional portrayal of Asian-American immigrant identity I've read in a while. Too often, struggles are generalized, families characterized, and pain homogenized. This book didn’t do any of that, homing in on specifics that makes Elsa and Oskar’s stories unique, relatable, and all the more real.

I loved the format of the book, with overarching metaphors, myths inserted between the pages containing her stories, and swoon-worthy letters pushing along plot and providing context.

The only thing keeping this book from being a 5-star read is how seemingly perfect Oskar is. A little too quick to forgive, a little too willing to help, and a little too composed, Oskar’s only flaws lived in his past and we get them all settled and wrapped up in a nice little bow at the end.

Overall a great read that I would recommend to mythology fans, readers who like to reflect on identity and family, and honestly all my Asian-American friends.

Thank you to NetGalley and Erewhon Books for providing me an ARC in exchange for an honest review!
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Folklorn is a novel by Angela Mi Young Hur from publisher Erewhon Books, which as a new publisher of off-beat SF/F and magical realism has really been putting out a ton of great stuff.  So I was already going to be interested in Folklorn anyway but I've also seen some high praise for it on twitter by a few writers I follow.  So yeah, I was really excited to pick up this one to see it for myself.

And Folklorn is like few novels I've read honestly, but it is absolutely tremendous.  A story of magical realism following a first generation Korean-American physicist feeling torn between worlds, between the stories of her seemingly gone-mad mother and the abuse of her now aged father, the racism and prejudice she has felt all over the world, and how all of those things seem to haunt her wherever she goes - literally perhaps as she begins to see her childhood imaginary friend guiding her toward...something. Don't get me wrong, it's not an American story really (it takes place as much in Sweden and also begins in Antarctica), but it absolutely the story of a woman, due to her Korean heritage and family, always seemingly out of place no matter where she goes, and it's utterly fascinating and compelling from beginning to end, even as it's often difficult to read.  

Trigger Warning:  The story features an abusive (physical) father and what can arguably be considered an abusive (verbally) mother, although such scenes are more often described than actually seen in the physical violence sense.  

-----------------------------------------------------Plot Summary----------------------------------------------------
Elsa Park is an experimental physicist nearing the end of her time at a station for particle measuring in the Antarctic.  Seemingly on the path to potential scientific greatness, Elsa finds herself filled with unease over family tradition she has long fled - a family of Korean immigrants to America who have always been haunted by their past. Elsa's father is haunted by the inheritance he felt he ought to have had in Korea and responded with anger and violence, while her mother was seemingly haunted by a daughter stillborn in Korea until she had a mental breakdown and became catatonic.  Elsa's brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia in college, believing himself Jesus' brother but helped Elsa flee to boarding school at 14 and then to college in Sweden, far away from the family seemingly falling apart.  

But even getting away from her family couldn't stop Elsa from noticing how people first in America, and then in Sweden and even Antarctica reacted to the clear outsider Korean face among them. And when she begins seeing her old imaginary friend in the Antarctic and hears of her mother suddenly speaking again of old stories and Elsa's long lost sister, Elsa finds herself seemingly lost in both past and future. Soon she finds herself hunting down not just hypothetical subatomic particles, but the stories of her family and heritage, seeking answers to transform her life out of the depths of her past.
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Folklorn is a hell of a book, one which is hard to explain or review or even talk about without verging into literary and worldly criticism.  At one point the protagonist thinks to herself: "I'd grown up thinking of my life as some immigrants kid bildungsroman, but then things took a sci-fi supernatural turn in Antarctica with some recent feathery flourishes of gothic horror.  Now I'm tripping into a rom-com set-up."  And yeah all those things are there, although the book settles quite clearly after that point into magical realism, in the form of an imaginary friend from Elsa's childhood returning to haunt her at various points to push her forward in some unclear direction.  

It's an unclear direction because Elsa's whole life has been moving in an unclear direction, pushed by her constant feeling of outsiderness due to her race, her heritage, and her family.  Elsa has lived in the US, then in Sweden, and then in Antarctica, and has always felt on the outside in large part due to her race and the different stereotypes those played into - stereotypes that she even sometimes internalizes (especially in the beginning, where she in a state of insomniac-looniness begins seeing a Mongolian graduate student as a replacement for herself). Whether she was expected to be the brilliant one in the US despite a blue collar family or expected to be a sex worker by racist assholes in Sweden muttering things as she passed by, she has never stopped feeling like an Other.  And so she always feels without a home - as she's never been to Korea, and would immediately be exposed as an Other there as well - despite having spent years in these places.  These experiences of course are not limited to Elsa - a similar experience is felt by another Swedish Academic she begins a relationship with, Oskar, a Korean adoptee by a Swedish family from a foster mother who couldn't understand what she was doing wrong in taking unwanted Korean children away from Korea and trying to raise them color-blind in Sweden.  

Elsa however adds to this all with her tragic family history that she can never escape.  Her father and mother left a war-torn Korea (sorta) and always acted like things were on the verge of disaster in various different ways.  For her father, who felt cheated out of his inheritance, and then suffered physical violence from a robber, he became abusive towards his wife and kids, even if more verbally than physically towards the kids, never being able to understand his kids potential wants for a different future.  For her mother, it led her to act dangerously, even becoming a prominent loan shark, even as she spun Korean folktales for her kids, folktales that never quite seemed to make sense....up until the one day when Elsa was 14 where her mother claimed her family was haunted by their ancestors tragedies and that Elsa had a long lost sister her mother left behind in Korea instead of actually being stillborn.  After that day, Elsa's mother became catatonic, and the pressure of Elsa's mother and father led her brother seemingly to have his own mental breakdown and diagnosis of schizophrenia, leaving him to leave college and come back home.  

For Elsa,, these family tragedies leave her adrift, and her attempt to escape it fails at the start of this story when her imaginary friend from way back when returns and her mother wakes up from her catatonia for one last comment about Elsa's supposed sister.  Indeed, there are clear parallels in her shift in research to focus on a hypothetical and perhaps long-shot particle and her attempt to discover truth and meaning in her family heritage, the heritage she can't escape, and the stories based upon Korean myth that her mother tried forcing on her before breaking down. It doesn't help that all these stories seem to feature tragedies being inflicted upon the Korean girls who are the subject of them, and that she can't quite remember the last of these stories.  

Over the course of the novel, Elsa struggles to put this all together, falling between worlds and seemingly being unable to put them all together - Elsa the brilliant scientist, Elsa the Korean-American girl in a White world, Elsa the girl from a family filled with mental health problems, - all at the same time.  It all leads to a fascinating conclusion where Elsa, through discovering the past - and how it fits in with others like Oskar and her brother - comes to a realization about transformation for both herself and her theorizing.  

I'm not sure if I'm making much sense in the above, and really the only solution is to suggest you read Folklorn, a tale of science, of history, of the influence of race - especially the influence of race - and how it all ties together. This is very much a book for power in this regard, especially as an answer for anyone who claims race doesn't matter, because for Elsa, it and her family heritage and history - and for Oskar with the same - it cannot be escaped.  And Elsa - and Oskar - won't escape it by the end, but they may come together with conclusions that will allow them to move forward despite it, by not simply running away from it as Elsa did for so long, but by trying to put it together - and perhaps more interesting, trying to put together what they are NOT - with who they actually are.
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Elsa is a physicist studying in Antarctica when she unexpectedly starts seeing her childhood imaginary friend again. Soon after, she learns that her mother has passed away, so she must to return to her childhood home of California. Could it be that this imaginary friend is actually a ghost related to her mother in some way? Elsa tries to search for answers by uncovering her mother's secrets and dealing with her other family members.

I'm having a difficult time putting together thoughts for this book. It is an incredible perspective of a Korean American woman and how her experience has shaped her views and her life. It also explores dealing with grief, loss, abuse, and generational trauma. Much of this is explored through Korean folktales that Elsa's mother left behind that tie into a magical realism component of the story. There is a lot going on and it's at times can be a heavy read, but also very beautifully written. I don't think I've ever read such a genuine and believable perspective before; Elsa just felt so real. 

Thank you to the publisher for providing a free eARC. All opinions are my own.
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Folklorn was a beautiful read. I loved the interplay of family trauma, Korean myth, and diaspora feels, and the weighty subject of intergenerational trauma and depression/grief is dealt with deftly by the author.
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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.

TALE OF MANY TALENTS

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.

FROM A DISTANCE

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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Folklorn by Angela Mi Young Hur uses magical realism to explore Korean mythology, cultural identity, mental health, and the enduring bonds of family. The novel opens with Elsa Park, a Korean-American experimental physicist conducting doctoral research on neutrinos (also known as ghost particles). She is confident in her studies, has no filter, and a prickly disposition, making her decidedly unlikable to those around her—yet an interesting character for readers to follow. Upon learning of her mother’s sudden passing, Elsa is forced to return home, where she begins a journey of self-discovery as she explores the Korean folktales her mother has left behind.

As far back as she can remember, Elsa’s mother has warned her that the women in their bloodline are doomed to live out the traumatic events outlined in a series of Korean folktales. Elsa constantly questions the abiding narratives that define cultural hegemony, so it’s in her nature to doubt her mother’s warnings; however, when she begins to see the supposedly imaginary friend she had as a child, Elsa interprets it as a portent of things to come and realizes there must be more to her mother’s stories. It’s either that, or she’s inherited her mother’s mental health issues, and the former is somehow easier to stomach than the latter, so she commits herself to researching the origins of her mother’s stories.

Folklorn is an especially nuanced examination of identity and race as they pertain to immigrants and diasporic communities. Elsa’s parents moved to America to make a better life for themselves, although they could not outrun the problems resulting from their own personal flaws. In addition to generational traumas, Elsa and her brother Chris struggle with the “model minority” myth, as well as “the freedom not to be grateful, indebted and beholden” like their immigrant parents. And Oskar, whom Elsa meets while learning about her mother’s folktales, is a Korean orphan adopted by Swedish parents and raised to ignore his race completely. Together, these seemingly disparate narratives provide a robust, decolonized illustration of the immigrant experience seldom seen in other novels.

The narrative structure in this book is difficult to follow as it jumps across time and space and struggles to straddle the line between academic book project and contemporary novel. The first of three parts, which consumes a little over 40% of the novel, was most challenging to read. Dense language and physics concepts attempt to teach readers about Elsa’s doctoral work while juxtaposing her passion for ghost particles with the Korean folktales that continue to haunt her. However, it’s simply too tedious for non-experts to digest while also attempting to establish other expository details at the beginning of the book. Elsa’s work is easiest to understand during a brief conversation she has with a cab driver, where she uses a metaphor about ice cream flavors to explain her research to an ordinary person. I would argue that’s all we need to know about it. Simply because Elsa is always thinking about her work does not mean we need to read about her thinking about her work, particularly because the more interesting aspects of Folklorn are about her family’s heritage and the mystery surrounding her mother’s stories.

Similarly, much of the dialogue about Korean myth, provenance, and book history in the third part of the novel is so heavily academic that it feels like a chore to read unless I’m getting a CV line for my efforts. I like a well-researched novel just as much as anyone else, but many parts of Folklorn read more like a scholarly publication (or conversations and correspondence about one). I repeatedly became impatient with the plot and pacing while Elsa and Oskar waxed poetic about their research.

Execution of the magical realism in this novel is disorienting, but I’m beginning to think that’s by design. The Korean folktales are real insofar as they’re stories with histories that span across centuries, but Elsa’s spiraling mental state paired with ill-advised efforts to self-medicate left me confused as to how we ought to perceive her visions. Sometimes I’d be halfway into one of her hallucinations before I realized what was happening. In retrospect, I wonder if the point was to illustrate just how unsettling and frustrating the experience is for Elsa. It is this ambiguity that makes the novel’s conclusion strangely wistful yet satisfying.

As an Asian-American academic with immigrant parents in a diaspora community, I related strongly to much of the experiences Elsa describes, and I particularly enjoyed learning about her family in the portions of the novel that highlight her past and her time with her brother. I also appreciate that Folklorn tackles the ambitious task of unpacking the many aftereffects of colonialism that continue to impact Asian diaspora communities. However, I wish the novel focused less on Elsa’s academic personality so that this important story could be a little more accessible for readers.

Thank you to NetGalley and Erewhon Books for sharing an advanced reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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I can absolutely see how some people would love this book. I happen to not be one of those people. The book fell on the magical realism side of fantasy and I wish it would have leaned into the folklore a bit more. I loved the interspersed folktales, but they did break up the plot. While I powered through to the end where the stories do all come together, this just wasn't for me. I could see this being interesting for someone trying to dip their toes into the fantastical, but who wants to hew closer to literary fiction.
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Folklorn is a very poetic book, full of magical realism and urban fantasy. I found the Korean folklore extremely fascinating and I learned a lot. There's so much to take in that I found it almost overwhelming and it took a while to get through it, but I'm glad I did. I enjoyed it enough to recommend it highly. Thanks to the publisher, the author, and Netgalley for providing the ARC for review.
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(Disclaimer: contains spoilers)

I'm not an immigrant. I have family members who are but I'm not. So the trauma and experience Elsa and her family, even Oskar, go through are something I can sympathize with but cannot empathize with. However, I do empathize with other traumas, particularly those inflicted upon you by a family member, those you love and trust and care for despite all the abuse and trauma that they inflict upon you because they couldn't process their own wounds and traumas and by making you their punching bags, they relieved some of those traumas from their backs.

But the thing with trauma is, if you don't process it properly, no matter how much and how long you inflict it upon others, it'll infect and fester, until you cannot separate any action and reaction in life from the traumas. I've been there. I've done that.

While reading the eARC, I skimmed through some of the reviews FOLKLORN received. They all mentioned generational trauma and immigrant experience and vice versa. I was surprised nobody mentioned mourning and grieving. Perhaps I am wrong in interpreting that this book is also about grieving. Perhaps it's my own misinterpretation. But if I don't include my interpretation, correct or incorrect, here then it'll be not honest of me as a reviewer.

So here it goes.

I think alongside the aforementioned themes, this book was also about grieving. Loss is one of the biggest traumas out there. Loss is an universal trauma that eats away at you with the loss of whoever or whatever you lost. Elsa and her family all lost something. Oskar too lost something. Sometimes they're big, huge, never-going-to-be-filled losses. Sometimes they're minor and we don't even know they're losses until years later. But loss is loss. I know loss. I know what it is like losing family members. Since 2011, I've lost ten family members. Some of them I was very close with. I was close to losing more in recent times. Loss is painful, yes. Loss is also maddening. It drives you crazy, not only with grief, but also with the overwhelming love you had inside you for the one you lost that now you cannot give them because they're gone and you don't know what to do with all these emotions and feelings. So you're overwhelmed and stressed and don't know what to do.

You need closure. Yet you don't know how to get it.

Such is Elsa's journey. Since childhood, she's experienced loss. At 14, she lost her mother, not to death, just to physical trauma. At 30, she truly lost her mother. Because of generational trauma, she didn't know how to express her love for her mother. So she kept them either buried or expressed wrongly. Either way, she never knew what to do with her love for her mother. How to find closure with the hole inside her the loss of her mother left. Throughout the book, she looked for that closure. Desperate to find a missing sister her mother claimed she had.

But in the end, we too learn her mother was grieving. Her baby was a stillborn. The love she nurtured inside herself to shower upon the baby was left festering inside her. Yes, love can fester too. Love is an emotion after all. This love she drained out of her in two ways; writing dead-end letters to a daughter she imagined she'd given up for adoption upon birth, and trying to mold her living daughter in the shape she'd have likened for her stillborn baby. This is her inflicting trauma upon Elsa in what she believed as signs of love and care. As mothers passing down folktales to her children, never noticing she wasn't loving her child, rather smothering her to the point driving her away.

But in the end, we're humans. Mourning and grieving are no linear process. No rulebook states how you do it, how long it can take, and how you can find closure. Same goes for traumas. Sometimes we heal. Sometimes we don't. Sometimes we don't heal entirely. FOLKLORN gives us a tale of mother and daughter, of sisters and brother, of parents and children, and how broken families can still find healing, find closure, find love. In ways unconventional and uncanny.

Thank you, NetGalley and Erewhon Books, for providing me with an eARC in exchange for my honest opinion.
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