Angela Mi Young Hur’s 2021 Folklorn is an up-coming contemporary fantasy novel.
Else Park splits her time between stalking the wild neutrino in desolate Antarctica and doing physics research in Sweden. She’s aiming at professional success — which will be hers if her hypothesis is supported by experimental evidence — and also at emotion management: putting thousands of kilometres between her and her family back in America.
Turns out that this isn’t far enough.
Years ago a mishap left Else’s domineering mother in a vegetative state. Now news comes from Else’s brother Chris that their mother may be waking from her long sleep. This is no harbinger of recovery, however. Their mother dies, leaving the family to deal with the aftermath. Else returns to America and the brother and father from whom she worked so hard to distance herself.
Else’s childhood was shaped by the Korean War … or rather the effects that living through it had on her immigrant parents. Along with rather disturbing folk tales — all of which centred on women and girls being abused and sacrificed — Else’s parents provided enough family history to paint a disturbing but accurate image of the war and the family’s experiences.
Else discovers that certain details were omitted from the family history as she knows it. It seems that Else and Chris were not the only children her parents had. There was an older sibling whose fate is unknown. Determined to solve the puzzle, Else sets out to apply the same skills she used to pursue neutrinos to track down her missing sister.
There is a fair chance that Park’s research will show that her proposed model is incorrect. As it is, her Antarctic neutrino hunt is derailed by a technical issue with one of the detectors. A far cry from all those stories in which research goes exactly as planned and produces the desired results in just a few weeks.
I know some people may be curious if being subjected to entrenched, systemic racism makes the usual refugees from war-shattered nation reinventing themselves as Americans narrative better or worse. Curiously, it seems that being forged in the fires of widespread hostility and profoundly misplaced expectations is not in fact beneficial, that decades of stress and generational trauma turn out to have a long-term, ongoing cost. Who knew?
Wait, you say, this really sounds more like a mystery than a fantasy novel. This is a ghost story in a few senses: Else has an imaginary friend whose nature she doesn’t really understand, and her mother’s missing history might as well be a ghost, given how it affects the present.
I expect this book to win accolades outside the genre as well as in it, given the skill with which it is written and the manner in which the fantastic elements are handled. Folks uncomfortable with overt fantasy can assure themselves it’s all metaphorical. Whether you end up thinking “it’s fantasy” or that “it’s metaphor,” Folklorn will be worth your time.