Beauty Amidst Wreckage: Once the Shore by Paul Yoon

Once the Shore

Once the Shore
BY Paul Yoon
(Sarabande Books, 2009)
Cover Painting: Ennui
BY Brenda Chrystie/CORBIS

From the Publisher:

“With Once the Shore, Paul Yoon delivers an astonishing debut of linked short stories set on a South Korean island.

Spanning over half a century — from the years just before the Korean War to the present — the eight stories in this collection reveal an intricate and unforgettable portrait of a single place in its entirety. An elderly couple embark on a fishing boat in a harrowing journey to find their son, hoping that he has survived a bombing in the Pacific. An orphaned Japanese woman’s past revisits her with devastating consequences in a wartime hospital. A case of mistaken identity compels a husband and wife to question the foundation upon which their lives has been built. An AWOL American soldier finds refuge in a small farming community, unknowingly endangering its inhabitants. And in the celebrated title story, a horrific accident at sea becomes the catalyst for an unlikely friendship between an American widow and a young waiter at a coastal resort.”

“I was interested in exploring two themes (or ideas or situations) with Once the Shore; if you were to imagine the island as a painting, I wanted to present a diptych: on one side there would be a depiction of a foreign military occupation and on the other side there would be a depiction of tourism…”
— Paul Yoon IN The Rumpus
March 23, 2009

Mesmerizing. Ravaging. A source of legend, adventure, music. Eroding the boundaries between the familiar and the unknown, the Pacific has long served as a setting, and in Paul Yoon’s debut it is no less meaningful for its recurrence. The ocean becomes a destination, a refuge, and a haunting reminder that an island — a place of “wind, like great birds” — is not psychologically easy to leave.

Once the Shore gathers characters who are experiencing varying degrees of post-traumatic stress, though their stories are not as wrenching as the publisher’s summary suggests. Yoon doesn’t dwell on traumatic events. He subtly explores how painful memories serve as a bridge between strangers or isolate even the closest family members.

“Look for Me in the Camphor Tree” (pp. 159-197) was my favorite of these stories. The exchanges between a father and his daughter Mihna (who imagines a woman in the woods has begun wearing her dead mother’s dress) are masterfully interwoven with the thread on the sale of their farm to a hotelier. Mihna’s fantasy is a form of resistance against sudden change. She survives her emotional ordeal, and the story ends with a serene image of snow falling on evergreens, “slow moving … and wide as ships.”

“And We Will Be Here” (pp. 199-234) features another character responding to loss by imagining someone she once knew. We’re seldom certain how much of the narrative stems from her delusions. Traditional storytelling blends with mystery, creating a moving snapshot of war’s ability to destroy the mind and evidence that resilience is more of a gift than a given.

A submarine accident, a shark attack, and a bombing represent some of the harsher consequences of living near the water, but most of the resulting deaths or injuries occur offstage. When they are mentioned, Yoon searches for beauty amidst wreckage:

… his brother … was killed when a United States submarine divided the Pacific Ocean for a moment as it surfaced, causing a crater of cloudy water to bloom, the nose of this great creature gasping for air while its body collided against what could have easily been a buoy or some type of detritus.

But what keeled and snapped upon impact was a fishing boat. And within it a crew of fisherman. Their bodies, once broken, sunk into a dark depth, their limbs positioned, without effort, in the most graceful forms known to any dancer.

— “Once the Shore,” p. 7

In “So That They Do Not Hear Us” (pp. 85-111), when Ahrim, the main character, recalls being kicked by Japanese soldiers on horseback, she remembers how “her eyes focused on the animals and their soft sighs, their white breaths. Hooves lifting, stamping the ground. Tremendous eyes. As if they had come from myth.” Another story describes a couple wading through the aftermath of a bombing. They recover bodies “as if for harvest” — an unusual phrase, considering the connotations for reaping the fruit of one’s labor and other similarly rewarding ideas. The incongruity between the elegance of the descriptions and the gravity of the scenes could make the reader wonder whether the search for beauty, cadence, and “truth in fiction” precluded a closer approximation of an emotional truth.

Page 1 of 2 1 2 View All

Printed from Cerise Press:

Permalink URL:

Page 1 of 2 was printed. Select View All pagination to print all pages.