Review: Skinship: Stories

In her debut collection, Skinship: Stories, Yoon Choi tells eight tales of Korean Americans, skillfully highlighting both the particulars of their experience and also the extent to which they share challenges in common with other immigrants to the United States. Their locales range from small cities and suburbia to New York City, with occasional glimpses of Korea; Choi's stories are rooted in the quotidian experiences of family and work life, painting a realistic portrait of the difficulties her subjects face in acclimating to a new land and their progress in doing so.

One of the most emotionally charged stories is "The Church of Abundant Life." Soo, a middle-aged woman who has settled in Lancaster, Pa., persuades her husband to drive her to a Philadelphia revival where an old friend of her husband's from Korea is preaching. When her husband fails to engage with the minister, she "wonders if it is his friend's success or his friend's life sorrows that have made him hold back," and realizes that "perhaps there are things about her husband that she will never understand."

In the title story, the adolescent narrator, So-hyun, comes to northern Virginia with her mother and younger brother to escape an abusive father. They move in with an aunt's family, which includes a cousin who becomes a subject of almost anthropological interest for So-hyun. She learns "you did not feel lonely or alone if you were observant. You could make a little nest for yourself in your observation. To watch what others were doing. To notice things they didn't notice."

Choi explores a shared immigrant experience in "A Map of the Simplified World," where Anjali Anand, an Indian girl, enters the third grade class of Ji-won Li, who came to the U.S. only a year earlier. The girls quickly bond, even as Ji-won's mother expresses her prejudice against Indian people. Years later, Ji-won's college application essay sparks a memory of her old friend that prefigures, for both good and ill, what she understands as "the onset of a new worldview."

Most collections have one or two entries that don't quite measure up to the quality of the volume as a whole, but that's not the case here. Each of Choi's stories is distinguished by careful character development, patient exposition and an emotional effect that deepens as the story proceeds. Hers are beautiful, sensitive stories that draw upon the lives of the culture with which she's most familiar to explore universal themes. --Harvey Freedenberg, freelance reviewer

Shelf Talker: Yoon Choi illuminates the lives of Korean Americans in eight sensitive, meticulously crafted stories.

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