Once the Shore: Stories by Paul Yoon [in San Francisco Chronicle]
In the author interview that arrived with the galley for Paul Yoon’s first book, Once the Shore, he confesses: “I did very little research – I used a handful of sources that I happened to read, most of them by chance, as jumping-off points for the stories (noted at the end of the book) – but once the stories began to progress I let my imagination roam.”
So persuasive are Yoon’s powers of invention that I went searching for his Solla Island somewhere off the mainland of South Korea – not realizing that it exists only in this breathtaking collection of eight interlinked stories. Yoon, a New York City-born Korean American, writes with such sparse precision as to create a visceral portrait of lost souls, each searching in worlds both living and dead.
The collection opens with the title story, “Once the Shore,” rightfully chosen for inclusion in “Best American Short Stories 2006.” An American widow has arrived at a posh resort on remote Solla, mysterious to the staff as a foreigner in such a faraway location. She develops a quiet friendship with one of the young waiters, good-naturedly called “Jim,” short for Jiminy, as in Cricket, from Disney’s “Pinocchio,” named by the other waiters who insist their youngest colleague resembles the cartoon: “thin limbs and a round head with big, wide dark eyes. A smile as magnificent as a quarter-moon.”
While Jim serves the widow, she reveals piecemeal the story of her late husband, who served in the Pacific, and their years of separation while he was stationed on Solla Island. She shares her husband’s sweet, though unreliable, stories of how he had memorialized their relationship in a cave somewhere on the coast, where “he inscribed his initials and hers and drew a heart around it.”
By listening, by responding to the widow’s memories, Jim is able to temporarily escape his own tragic narrative, in which his beloved older brother, a tuna fisherman, is declared dead, “killed when a United States submarine divided the Pacific Ocean for a moment as it surfaced, causing a crater of cloudy water to bloom, the nose of this great creature gasping for air.”
Both characters, the widow nearing the end of her life and the young Jim just coming into full adulthood, are searching for a seemingly impossible closure with their missing loved ones. In a gorgeous moment initially orchestrated by Jim and completed by the widow, the story ends with a quiet gasp in surreal, yet utterly satisfying beauty….[click here for more]