Nuclear Family, by Joseph Han

It’s easy to mistake stability for coasting and it’s pretty clear from the beginning of Joseph Han’s Nuclear Family that the Cho family is coasting. The elder Chos plan to expand their small Korean delicatessen but that dream has stalled in the face of competition. Neither of the younger Chos really want to carry on the family business. They don’t know what they want, really; they just know they don’t want to do that. When Jacob inexplicably decides to take a job in South Korea and even more inexplicably tries to run across the demilitarized zone to the North, everything falls apart for the family. This book, then, is a slow burn of directionless decline in which we can only hope that the four Chos can somehow find their paths forward.

Most of Nuclear Family is narrated by daughter Grace and son Jacob. There are brief passages narrated by their parents and grandparents that add a little more context to the family’s struggles in Korea during and after the war and, later, in Hawai’i. Of the two, Jacob’s story is much more interesting (to me, at least). His disorienting fall has a clear cause. You see, he’s being haunted (and sometimes possessed) by his long-lost grandfather, whose unfinished business has turned his spirit into a gwisin. His sister, on the other hand, is possessed by marijuana. The drug seems to be the only thing that keeps her from completely losing her grip, at the cost of detaching her from reality. I find reading from the point of view of inebriated characters difficult. It often strikes me as so much blather. This might be because I ran with a nerdy crowd in high school and college; we were all too busy reading to experiment with mind-altering substances.

While Jacob struggles to ditch his supernatural pest of a grandfather and Grace barely pauses between puffs from her vape pen, their parents find that their community—especially their fellow Korean emigrants—has turned on them. Their son’s bizarre run marks the Chos as traitors. The main branch of their delicatessen is the target of a thrown brick. The snubs and gossip are even worse. I felt for the elder Chos. To see their dream of financial independence and a future for their children evaporate in the face of public disapproval is heartbreaking. What was all that work for if it can disappear in an instant?

The ending of Nuclear Family offers some hope for the future but, like so many other works of literary fiction, there is still the possibility that something else will happen to send the family off the rails. It might not be a happily ever after and I appreciate that. The conclusion of this novel feels honest and satisfyingly hard-won.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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