When I first encountered Paul Yoon’s story, “Once the Shore,” the opening piece in Best American Short Stories 2006, I felt the rush of a new discovery. In the first paragraph, a woman tells a waiter how her husband parted his hair. “There was a time,” the woman said, “when he bathed for me and me alone.”
Nothing obviously dramatic is happening here—a woman describes someone who is not present to someone who is—but Yoon writes about the mundane in a way that evokes an entire relationship. The woman recalls how “each strand shone like amber from the shower he took prior to meeting her…”
While reading those lines, I was surprised as a forgotten memory bloomed in me: sixteen years old, peeking out the second-story window of my parents’ house as I watched a boy ring the doorbell, waiting to go on my first date. From that angle, I glimpsed the red and blue striped cotton jacket the boy wore and the top of his head, his hair neatly parted, still damp.
I’d have to wait a couple of years to read more work from Yoon, as “Once the Shore” was his first published story (it first appeared in One Story). Now, Sarabande has published Yoon’s debut collection, named for that same piece; I read the stories slowly, doubling back to read them again, drawing out the pleasure of the experience.
The stories take their time to develop, unfolding in a way that feels as big in scope as a novel. And contained within the stories themselves are paragraphs that suggest entire stories, as in this example from “Faces to the Fire”:
“Her mother passed away while Sojin was at work. She was found lying on the rush mat that she had preferred over a mattress. Her ear was pressed against a portable radio. It had awoken her husband in the morning and before he left to gather eggs, he had told her to shut it off. When he returned it was still on, tuned to a station that played swing music. She died grinning. With saxophones and trumpets.”
I was startled by how beautifully Yoon writes about the horrifying: a bereaved woman repeatedly runs full force towards a cliff, stopping short of the edge in “So That They Do Not Hear Us,” a person is consumed by flames in “Faces to the Fire,” and a couple lovingly collects human body parts floating in the ocean in “Among the Wreckage.” He writes with precision and artistry: “She was drenched, her clothes revealing a body loosened by age, all her years contained in the folds and pigment of her skin, like the inside of a tree” (“Among the Wreckage”) and “[H]e knew then what it was to be afraid. It was the feeling of diminishment” (“Once the Shore”).
The eight stories in Once the Shore, all previously published in literary magazines such as TriQuarterly, Glimmer Train, and Ploughshares, span a fifty-year period on Solla Island, a fictional island off the coast of South Korea which Yoon makes feel both foreign and familiar. He imagines the impact of time and the various forces at work on the island’s landscape over the decades, including war and, later, tourist dollars. Landmarks such as Tamra Mountain, the caves, and the East China Sea stay the same; while the farm sold to a developer in one story just might be the tourist-resort setting of another.
Characters from different social classes and historical moments move through the stories, ranging from a seawoman in her sixties to a young girl whose mother has just died to a middle-aged husband evaluating his life. Yoon convincingly inhabits these disparate characters, some of whom move through more than one story as the author shifts people and areas of the island into the background or foreground depending on the story. It was a delight to wonder if the seawoman, a lead character in one story, is the same character who appears in a later story to sell a bowl of shellfish.
In “Among the Wreckage,” Bey searches for his missing adult son and remembers when his son was small enough to ride on his back and look at the stars. “They were happiest then,” Bey thinks. This certainty—that one’s happiest moments are in the past—is depressing, but Yoon somehow leaves space for his characters to experience dignity, or momentary pleasure, in the lives that are suggested beyond each story’s end. He explores what is said between people and what is unspeakable, the ways people attempt to connect and the ways they disappoint one another, and the impact of the stories—and the lies—we tell ourselves, each other.