I spent the whole book wanting the author to show more and tell less, until I couldn’t wait for her to tell me more! Shelter is about telling the truth. It’s not pretty, nor polite, and it’s not subtle nor nuanced, but it’s highly satisfying. The truth wins in the end.
Kyung is on the verge of economic collapse. He and his wife have maxed out their credit cards. They have a four year old son whom it’s easier to buy for than spend time with. Gillian, his wife, is in school. At the very moment Kyung’s family could use some help financially, Kyung’s parents are burglarized and tortured in their own home. Along with Gillian’s police officer father and brother, Kyung and Gillian help pick up the pieces of his parents’ shattered lives. Through the process, Kyung reckons with his father’s abuse of his mother, and his mother’s abuse of him, Kyung. He learns that the crisis hits his parents while they are at relational – unlike his economic – rock bottom. The parents recover financially and even pull Kyung’s family out of debt. Emotionally, on the other hand, the crisis leads to Kyung’s mother, Mae’s suicide and the dissolution of Kyung’s marriage. Not all is lost, however: at rock bottom, Kyung and his father forgive one another and start out a new phase of their relationship in each other’s arms.
What makes the book a good read is its cinemographic insistence on the revelation of plot. One crisis leads to another; the drama never ceases. At times I craved more time to linger over details, that the description of scenes would carry the plot. Instead, characters’ pasts get explained in generalizations (“Their arguments always begin like this…,” “Absence was always his best weapon against Gillian”) in order to move the plot along. The author analyzes characters’ actions for us, e.g., “It’s sad that she thinks this way, but this has always been her problem.” She explains characters’ actions before they do them. Before Gertie (a realtor hoping to sell Kyung’s parents’ house) is “running to a faucet, opening cabinets, cracking ice from the tray into the sink,” “[Kyung] wishes she would leave, but it’s obvious she doesn’t intend to.” Her actions could have told us this before the author tells us.
Kyung makes speeches at several junctions in the book which I found unbelievable. These outbursts don’t seem to fit Kyung’s repressed nature. And yet, I cheered for him at the same time. He is moved by what has happened to him and to his family. The plot has worked on him, and worked on me, the reader, leading us toward empathy for all the characters. Kyung unleashes the repression and the pent up anger he feels and speaks the truth. For once, and most likely for all, he is not hit for it, but hugged. He’s sorry and his father is sorry. It’s a relief that’s worth the ride.