Elsa’s family is full of broken people. And, even though she managed to get away, she’s somewhat broken, too. Folklorn, by Angela Mi Young Hur, is a story of damaged people trying to endure…and of Elsa’s efforts to do more than endure. All of this is seasoned with Korean folklore in the form of stories that Elsa’s mother warned would eventually come for her. Throughout the book, I wondered what was real, what was mental illness, and what just might be supernatural.
Elsa Park is one of the prickliest characters I’ve ever read. I can’t blame her, considering what she grew up with. Between her father’s anger, her mother’s possible madness, her brother’s scheming, and a lot of anti-Asian racism, she’s never really known peace or comfort. She’s always being pushed to be an obedient daughter or a “model immigrant.” The prickliness is Elsa’s armor. She uses it to fend off catcallers as well as potential friends. I’ll admit it took me some time to really understand what was underneath Elsa’s behavior.
We meet Elsa in Antarctica. She studied physics in high school. Her intelligence and drive have brought her to one of the most elite scientific stations in the world—and as far as possible from her family without actually leaving the planet. Her troubles have followed her, of course, in the form of a ghostly Korean woman only Elsa can see. Within a few pages, Elsa seems to be breaking down mentally. After a technological and then social disaster, she runs to Sweden to resume post-doctoral work. It’s there that she learns of a third disaster: her mother has died after years in a coma.
The plot of Folklorn spools out as Elsa finally returns to the United States and her remaining family. In flashbacks, we learn just how broken the Park family is. There are also interstitial chapters that consist of Korean folktales. All of these tales center on girls who are betrayed by their parents (usually their fathers) and sacrificed for the greater good. Sometimes the girls are rescued or rescue themselves. More often, they die. Before Elsa’s mother fell into her coma, she tried to convince Elsa that all the women in her family were cursed to become one of those folktale girls. After her mother’s death, Elsa throws aside her studies on neutrinos to puzzle out her mother’s stories.
This was a difficult book to read. Folklorn is the kind of book that always keeps readers guessing. We have to read very carefully between the lines to decide what’s real and what isn’t. Even once I decided what I thought was real, I still had big questions about the likelihood of Elsa being able to recover as she flits from place to place and project to project. What will it take to heal Elsa? What will it take for her to find a real home? It’s only at the very end that I got answers, although I can’t quite say that I’m satisfied by Folklorn. The ending is lovely but the preceding chapters kicked up so much psychological baggage that I’m still processing what I learned about Elsa and the Parks. This book absolutely needs a light-hearted chaser to wash everything away.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.