cover image The Liberators

The Liberators

E.J. Koh. Tin House, $27.95 (304p) ISBN 978-1-959030-15-7

The moving and lyrical debut novel from memoirist Koh (The Magical Language of Others) follows an unhappy South Korean couple who emigrates to the U.S. In the wake of the military government’s violent 1980 crackdown on protestors, Insuk is arranged to be married to Sungho by her father, Yohan, on advice he believes he’s received from the spirit of Insuk’s late mother, who died when Insuk was little. By the time Insuk becomes pregnant in 1983, Sungho has begun cheating on her. Unnerved by the rampant kidnapping and torture perpetrated by the military dictatorship and low on options, the couple moves to San Jose, Calif., where their son, Henry, is born. When Henry is five, Sungho takes him to the Chinese Korean restaurant where she waits tables. In Henry’s view, the husband-and-wife team who run the restaurant lord over their staff “like a boa constrictor.” After Insuk has a miscarriage, she begins an affair with a man named Robert, stirred by his commitment to Korean reunification. Koh weaves together the narrative in short, bracing chapters from various characters’ perspectives both in the U.S. and back in Korea. A tragic, Kafkaesque episode involving Yohan is told from a Korean prison guard’s point of view, and it gives greater weight to the story’s intergenerational trauma, familial grief, and political consciousness. Koh has fully harnessed her potential in this assured outing. Agent: Kate McKean, Howard Morhaim Literary Agency. (Nov.)