Review: The Mountain

The six stories in Paul Yoon's (Snow Hunters) second collection, The Mountain, are almost shocking in their simplicity. Possessing a fable-like sensibility, each one is a quietly elegant examination of how survivors of various sorts carry on in the face of profound loss. Yoon's strikingly uninflected prose heightens both the tension and the resonance of these tales.

Though The Mountain's stories range across more than a century and inhabit settings that include upstate New York, Galicia and Russia's Pacific coast, they're united by the distant echo of war. Yoon illuminates how the tragic consequences of conflict linger long after the guns fall silent. World War I soldiers are sent to recover from their injuries in a Hudson Valley sanatorium in "A Willow and the Moon." In "Milner Field," a stunning incident involves a weapon given as an expression of gratitude for a lifesaving act by a Japanese commanding officer to one of his troops.

The collection's title story is its most haunting. Born in Shanghai, where her father worked in a chemical plant, its protagonist, Faye, "named after an actress in a gangster movie whose title she couldn't remember," returned to South Korea as a teenager. When she's recruited for a mind-numbing job on the assembly line of a Chinese camera factory, she gradually unearths fragments of a past that yield both physical and psychological trauma.

It's impossible to separate the content of these stories from the daringly unembellished quality of Yoon's writing, where omission often feels as meaningful as the words on the page. Favoring allusive references over elaborate description, his evocation of something as simple as the "wind passing through the high leaves" or "smoke rising from the valley ridge" conjures up a web of associations.

Representative of this captivating prose style is this passage from "Still a Fire," where a young woman named Karine surveys the decay of an abandoned cottage, the final resting place of a downed World War II pilot:

"She stays on the wing for a while and then heads back up, entering the cottage, to the dusty furniture, the long kitchen table, teacups. Pillows. An oil painting hangs tilted on the wall. There are also leaves piled up everywhere. An eggshell from a hatched bird. The smell of past seasons. Each corner like some abandoned story."

Yoon's unadorned prose is of a piece with the fragility of these delicate stories. Individually and collectively they comprise an exquisite and memorable work of art. --Harvey Freedenberg, attorney and freelance reviewer

Shelf Talker: Paul Yoon's evocative second collection of short stories explores the lives of trauma survivors.

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