by Sybil Baker
The crux of Sybil Baker's Into This World comes in the very first line: "You're giving up stability for the unknown." The speaker, in this case, is Allison Morehouse's father, Wayne. Allison has just informed her parents that she's quit her longtime job, for reasons she is not completely sharing, and her "do-the-right-thing" father cannot wrap his head around it. A Korean war veteran, he has favored a steady paycheck and benefits, and in ways that we will soon discover, this often comes at the expense of his heart. Before they can finish this conversation, however, they are interrupted by a frantic phone call from Allison's sister, Mina. Though she does not tell her sister exactly what she's upset about, she says of their father, "He lies."
Allison decides, especially in the absence of a job and her former marriage, to go visit Mina, who has been living in Korea and teaching. Their parents hope that Allison will convince Mina to move back "home," but Allison's not entirely sure that's why she's going. All she knows is that there is a tremendous absence in her heart, and by staying where she was, she had no hope in filling it.
After the kids finished the song, Jason opened the door to the classroom. Mina greeted them in an exaggerated, dramatic voice.
"We have a surprise today. My sister flew all the way from Washington, DC." The children whispered and giggled as they turned to Allison, who stood at the entrance of the classroom.
She'd not been prepared for the little Minas chiming hello at her.
"She's not your sister," one of the children said. "You're Korean. She's American."
"She is my sister. I'm adopted." Mina then said a word Allison assumed was Korean and the students murmured again. "English," Mina said. "Show my sister your English."
"How long you visit Korea?"
"Do you marry?"
Mina came to live with the Morehouses when she was a toddler and Allison was not much older. At first, Mina tried desperately to interact with her new sister, and Allison would hide in her room. Eventually, Mina quit trying, and all the way through adulthood, the sisters have a tenuous relationship. They never really seem to understand each other, and up until Allison's trip to Korea, they haven't really tried. What ensues is a mixture of familial revelations and a long, hard look at the difference between good connections versus "good for you" connections. How does one have them overlap? And what does duty mean in the face of love? The story flashes back some to Wayne Morehouse's two tours of duty in Korea, and while we spend a lot of time in Allison's head, we eventually see events from Mina's point of view.
Though some of the "lies" are easy to spot about midway through the book, as there's some (perhaps intentional) heavy foreshadowing, Baker writes in a way that still kept me second-guessing my assumptions, and there are still a few elements surrounding the truth-telling that I did not see coming at all. It's a lovely book, and she does not let her characters get overly sentimental or romanticize their surroundings. Both Wayne and Mina have their own complicated feelings about Korea. Allison doesn't know what to expect, apart from what she has heard from her father, which is to say, the Korea of decades prior. Like everything, the country has changed. There's much to do with marriage, parenthood, sisterhood and friendship, as well as alienation and loneliness. Everyone has their armor, and everyone has the stories they hope they never have to tell.
He was pleased with his plan and proud of his willpower. While his buddies were fucking not just their yobosayos but any other thing they felt like, night after night, bragging of their conquests, Wayne had still done nothing but attend skivvy shows. Worse, he thought, the guys lied to themselves, pretending that the Korean girls liked what they were doing, wanted to be with them, that money was not exchanging hands, that these women were here not out of abject necessity, but because they, like the soldiers, liked having a good time. Some of the guys pretended the yobosayos were like real girlfriends, pretty sweet girls who fawned over their pasty asses, girls who cared not in the least about marriage or a green card, girls who were not desperate to escape. At least Wayne knew where he and Bonnie stood, that she loved him not for looks or money, but because they'd come from the same place and were meant to be together. It was as simple and complex as that.
"As simple and complex as that" — Yes. I read Into This World very quickly, staying up entirely too late one night (more so than usual) because I was sucked into the story. If we had to winnow down our criteria for what makes a good book, I bet that would be at the top of the list: 3am reading. I'm glad I spent the time, and I can understand the urge to recreate one's world. The characters here fluctuate between using that change for betterment and for escape, and their methods aren't always likeable, but they come from a place of personal truth.
ETA: This book does not officially come out until May 22nd. GoodReads is currently giving away 5 copies, so you have until the 24th to throw your hat into the ring.
Full Disclosure: Engine Books sent me this advanced reader's copy, so there's always a chance that the finished product and my pull-quotes do not 100% match. I thank EB for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.
This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26, or 52 books in one year. The count ends December 31, 2012.