I am slowly stepping out of my somber reflection and trying to gather my thoughts on Folklorn by Angela Mi Young Hur. Upon finishing the book, I slowly closed the cover and then spent the next three days trying to unpack what I read. I still don’t fully grasp what happened or what it all means, but even with muddled thoughts, I know I have been deeply affected by this story.
For Elsa Park, even Antarctica isn’t far enough to escape her past. While collecting data at the research facility in the wastes of the cold continent, Elsa becomes haunted by her imaginary childhood friend. Elsa has spent her entire life outrunning the family she left behind, but her past has finally caught up. Her parents had left a war-torn Korea with her older brother in tow to seek out a better life in California, and by the time Elsa comes along, she finds herself in an unstable family fighting to create a life in America. Education was her one-way ticket out, so Elsa leaves home at 14 and never looks back. Unfortunately, the appearance of the imaginary friend sends Elsa down a spiraling path back to her family’s doorstep to confront the ghosts once and for all.
Hur’s writing style produces an enchanting and haunting effect. Our worldview is framed through Elsa, who intimately exposes her past and present. The reader ebbs and flows through Elsa’s present-day interactions that are seemingly normal, but slowly become plagued by visions of her imaginary friend. These moments will end abruptly and dissolve into memories from Elsa’s childhood, blurring the lines of past and present or real and imaginary. Throughout, Elsa’s jarring personality creates confusion due to unanticipated responses to events and people. Adding even more to Folklorn’s dissonant harmony is Elsa’s experience as an Asian woman – exposing moments of othering and harassment she experiences within her field of study and when living in Sweden and California. All of these elements worked together to keep me off-kilter and played into the mystical story and reflects Elsa’s tenuous relationships and fragile mental state.
As you can probably guess, there is not enough space here to unpack everything in this book. Folklorn details some heavy stuff and that dream-like state I entered while reading softened the blow…in the moment. But now I’m left here to sort through A LOT and I’m realizing just how upsetting the story was upon examination. The most obvious being Elsa’s distressing accounts of racism that harries her and her family at every turn. Second, are the details shared about immigrant families, seeing them lose a connection to their culture while not being fully accepted or integrated into the new one. The final and most important element that hides behind the book’s hallucinatory nature – mental illness.
I find myself haunted by the ghosts and stories that followed Elsa, the ones that were inherited from her family and the apparitions of her own creation. Mur showcased how actions, emotions, traumas, etc. reverberate through time and space. How they have unintended consequences that plague new generations, creating many questions and no easy answers. This tale was a thought-provoking, painful, and inspiring journey.
The poignant and powerful moments in Folkorn sat on the surface, showing only the tip of an iceberg, waiting until I closed the book to fully reveal the breadth of their impact underneath. There is a lot to love and fear in this story, and it’s one I will enjoy examining further. Even though the book wasn’t as fantastical as I originally thought, I was still captivated by the human experience shrouding the mystical elements. If you’re looking for something outside your normal fantasy TBR definitely give this tale a spin.
Rating: Folklorn – 8.5/10