Once the Shore by Paul Yoon

Posted: July 26, 2009 in Book Reviews
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Before reading Paul Yoon’s debut collection, I couldn’t recall the last time chills ran down my spine upon reaching a short story’s end.  Since finishing Once the Shore, a new lapse in memory has occurred: I can’t remember the exact number of times I felt those surges down my spine while reading this book.  It was too many to count.  The reason being: Yoon’s stories work the same way Richard Hugo suggests good poems should in his essay, “Writing Off the Subject.”  Each story travels along a central road with several possible exits, and near their conclusions, Yoon makes poetic turns that at once take the reader by surprise, but ultimately seem unavoidable.

The characters in these stories all desire similar things: preservation of lost memories, people, and/or objects.  In the title story, an American woman visits a small island off the coast of Korea where her husband had gone AWOL while serving in the US military.  When her husband had returned home after his tour years ago, he was not the same man she married, which caused strain to their marriage until his passing.  By visiting this island, she attempts to rekindle the memory of the man she knew and loved.

Meanwhile, a young waiter working at the resort where she’s staying receives news that his brother’s fishing boat has been destroyed in an accident involving a US submarine.  He has no way to search for his brother, no way of knowing if there were survivors.  So he decides to help this elderly woman find what she came to the island in search of.  The story seems to be set up to have an either/or conclusion: she’ll either find what she’s looking for, or she won’t.  But that’s not the direction Yoon takes.  As in all of stories that make up this collection, he deviates from an expected outcome, often showing how longing for another shot at the past and the need for closure can set up improbable expectations.

In “Faces to the Fire,” a woman is reunited with her childhood friend, a bastard boy from the wrong side of the island.  As a girl, she thought they were meant to be together, and his return sparks the sense of false hope that her childhood dreams were coming true.  However, his homecoming is prompted by malicious intentions.  Characters in several stories either see apparitions of lost loved ones, or they confuse new acquaintances with those to whom they are no longer connected.  Cultural themes are also woven into the mix to create additional roadblocks for the characters.

The US military’s interest in the island forces the natives to adapt to the occupation.  When a couple searches for the wreckage of their son’s boat after a rogue bomb destroyed it, they must pass a Navy checkpoint in the once vacant sea.  One village allows a soldier who has gone AWOL into its community, and the US military begins disrupting these people’s lives.  As the years advance and technology on the island grows, the need for jobs like the sea woman’s–who dives for minutes at a time to catch shellfish–and the woodcarver’s slowly decline.  And when developers work to modernize the island and transform it into a tourist locale, families must decide whether they should sell their land, or stay in the only home they’ve ever known.

These stories may seem bleak; however, there are several moments of beauty.  Especially in the prose, where the poetic similarities continue.  Within a sentence, Yoon will delay the outcome of the present action, increasing both drama and tension.  When he describes a tragic moment—like the surfacing submarine, colliding with a fishing boat—the language he uses is both lovely and sad:

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

These stories are linked by place and specific events, though the characters from one story don’t appear by name in others.  Often the back-story of characters from one story provides the premise for a later one.  What amazes me is that the setting—this Korean island, which remains a constant throughout the book—is described so vividly, it makes me think he wrote these passages while lying on its sandy beaches.  Not so, however.  This island only exists in the mind of the writer, but his ability to convince me that its real is one of the many reasons I’ll be coming back to this book again and again.

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