Nuclear Family by Joseph Han

Nuclear Family is a family drama characterized by a gritty realism & tragicomedy tone, that will definitely appeal to fans of dysfunctional families such as the ones you can find in books such as Kirstin Valdez Quade’s The Five Wounds or, series like Shameless, or films such as Everything Everywhere All at Once . While I believe that Joseph Han is a promising author, structurally and thematically Nuclear Family felt a bit all over the place, and the elements of magical realism were at best, ineffectual, and at worst, a mere gimmick. Still, there were some truly heart-rendering moments, especially towards the end, and the sense of place is consistently strong. I also appreciated how ambivalent the characters were and the fraught, yet sometimes playful, dynamics they have with one another.

The narrative uses multiple perspectives and a nonlinear timeline to recount the events leading to and the aftermath of the novel’s ‘inciting incident’, that is Jacob Cho attempting and failing to cross the Korean demilitarized zone. The Cho’s are a Korean American family based in Hawai’i who run several restaurants. While their daughter, Grace, a college student with a penchant for weed, still works for them, their son Jacob has gone to become an English teacher in Seoul. One day, Grace and her father see on the news a video showing Jacob’s failed attempt to cross the border to North Korea. Confused, angry, and scared the Cho are unable to get in contact with Jacob as he is being detained by the South Korean government. While the sections taking place in Hawai’i focus on the weeks and months after this incident, the chapters centred on Jacob’s attempt to give us an insight into the circumstances that led him to do this. We learn more of his childhood in Hawai’i, where he was often made to feel like an outsider, and that he is fairly repressed when it comes to his sexuality and desires. Once in Seoul Jacob’s portions of the narrative acquire a feverish quality, as scenes and sequences of events are presented to us in fragments. He seems affiliated with a mysterious malaise, one that results in rashes and a general sense of fatigue. His sense of alienation is exacerbated in Seoul as although he is seen as Korean, he doesn’t speak the language fluently and has American mannerisms that once again lead him to feel like an ‘oddity’. Additionally, he is being stalked by the ghost of his grandfather who is intent on possessing him. Interrupting his chapters are the ones revolving around the rest of his family, in particular Grace. The Cho’s reputation is in tatters after Jacob’s botched attempt is televised, and the restaurants are hard hit. Their regular customers begin eating elsewhere, while their neighbours and the members of their church distance themselves from them, seeming to delight in gossiping about the Cho’s ‘fall’ and spreading false rumours about them (that they are spies, turncoats etc.). Grace, now more than ever resentful of her parents and her brother, as well as the ‘special’ treatment he was given by them growing up & in adulthood, tries to smoke away from her problems.

While I appreciated the realism of the dialogues we do get, I found myself wishing for more. A lot of the ones we get are either of bantery & argumentative nature or of a stoned & confused variety. Sure, they could be entertaining and authentic but I would have liked for more scenes where we get to ‘hear’ the characters interacting with one another, especially in those more emotional & dramatic moments.

Han’s multivalent perspectives do not always work out, and we get snippets following characters who do not really add much to the Cho’s narratives. I wish the narrative would have instead exclusively focused on the Cho’s, as I found myself wanting to learn more about Grace and Jacob’s parents. There are also time-skips that feel rushed, and they take away immediacy from the Cho’s experiences and distanced me somewhat from their story. Jacob’s storyline was all over the place. I understand that many sections from his story were intentionally unclear, however, I still found most of his storyline very underwhelming in that he doesn’t come across as rounded a character as Grace. Maybe I would have preferred it if within his chapters we could have delved more into his sexuality or at least if we’d been given more glimpses of his personality. Besides his ability to see ghosts, and his propensity for awkwardness, we don’t learn much about him. At least we see Grace interact with different people (from her parents to her friends and colleagues) whereas Jacob’s chapters are mostly about him feeling unwell and being sort of possessed. This fantastical element didn’t really work for me. This grandfather’s character was poorly developed and served more as a plot device. Maybe if the story had also included chapters exclusively centred on his story, maybe then I would have found his ghostly presence more ‘convincing’…

The relationship between Grace and Jacob also left me wanting for the majority of the book. He doesn’t really think much about her (or his parents for the matter) as he is too busy being possessed or possibly hallucinating stuff. Grace is angry at him, sure. But I would have liked it more if she’d been shown to think about him more, or at least of their relationship in the past. The glimpses we do get about their bond prior Jacob leaving for Seoul were kind of unsatisfying, and I was rather annoyed by how Jacob’s sexuality is framed in her chapters.
Still, in the latter half of the novel, we do get more of them together. While the last pages were a bit meh (to me, fart humor is just not that funny) I found the novel’s final act to be far more poignant and cathartic than the previous acts. Without resorting to sentimentalism Han presents us with some truly moving moments.

So, Nuclear Family was a bit of a mixed bag for me. I would recommend it to fans of family dramas or readers who are looking for a story exploring uneasy family dynamics and generational & cultural differences as well as failure, guilt, and reconciliation.
Even if I wasn’t blown away by Nuclear Family I am looking forward to reading whatever Han writes next.

My rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

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