The Hive and the Honey by Paul Yoon: A quietly striking collection

Cover image for The Hive and the Honey by Paul YoonI took a chance on Paul Yoon’s collection The Hive and the Honey, not having come across this Korean American author before. Comprising seven stories, it ranges far and wide across time and continents exploring Korean experiences of displacement and identity. As ever, I’ll pick out my favourites although almost all deserve a mention.

I have spent my life building rooms in my mind to step in or to never to step in and it is as if I have built all the rooms wrong.  

The opening story, Bosun, sees the eponymous Korean man, released from an American prison in the early 1990s, heading to the tiny town where his cellmate has paved the way for a job in casino security and finding the possibility of a happier, more connected life than his twelve years living on the fringes in New York City. Four centuries before in At the Post Station, two Japanese warriors who’ve looked after a young Korean boy snatched as an infant and treated like a pet by their master, are restoring him to his homeland, one of them surprised at how fond he’s become of the child. In Cromer, poleaxed by grief for his parents, the child of North Korean refugees settled in a London suburb is brought up short by the realisation that he has no family but his wife, further unsettled when a young Korean boy with a bloody nose and amnesia turns up in their shop. Set in the nineteenth century, the titular story tells the tale a Korean settlement overseen by a young Russian policeman seemingly banished by his uncle, whose inhabitants are convinced they’re haunted by a murdered woman.

She had a thousand questions for Kye and Tak, but every time she attempted to pluck one out, the questions slipped away. She felt like she was trying to catch kites whose strings she had lost.

The grandson of a North Korean refugee who settled in South Korea, Yoon explores themes of identity, loss, loneliness, and hardship in elegantly spare yet vivid prose. His characters, both Korean and otherwise, are often displaced, not entirely belonging where they find themselves, often through colonisation or war. Children are left to fend for themselves through circumstance: a twentieth-century veteran, picks up the pieces of his ruined family farm, taking in two orphans in Valley of the Moon while a sixteen-year-old, left alone and impoverished after his uncle dies, tracks down his father but finds they’re strangers to each other in Person of Korea. These are quietly thoughtful yet often striking stories. Having looked Yoon up to see what else he’s written I’ll be adding his novel Run Me to Earth to my ever-expanding tbr list.

Scribner Books London 9781398530508 160 pages Paperback (read via NetGalley)

17 thoughts on “The Hive and the Honey by Paul Yoon: A quietly striking collection”

  1. Since our visit to South Korea, this is a country I’ve been quietly fascinated by, so this is a must-read. In the short term, however, Run me to Earth turns out o be in our branch of the library, so I’ll be borrowing it straight after the Easter break.

      1. I’m on the case. Yes, our library service is brilliant. I don’t know how they manage to keep on getting interesting new stock in these straitened times.

  2. I’ve always meant to try Yoon, though my impression is that his books can’t be easily gotten in this country. I have The Mountain on my TBR because it’s said to be linked short stories.

      1. Run Me to Earth I found very astute and tenderly told. I’ve been really wanting to read these new stories but can’t find them where I’m at right now, so I might have to buy a copy. Are they the sort that suggest they would reward rereading? Perhaps it’d be nice to have a copy after all?

  3. This collection sounds really good, I can’t remember if I have yet read another Korean though I do have at least two Korean books tbr. I like the sound of the themes here with the varied time periods and settings.

Leave a comment ...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.