O Beautiful by Jung Yun

“Men talk to her on planes. She doesn’t invite it anymore; it’s just something that happens. Usually, she travels with things to armor herself against unwanted conversation. Headphones. A sleeping mask. An oversized sweatshirt with a hood.”

Jung Yun’s newest novel, “O Beautiful”, features the weighted, plodding exploration of the Bakken, North Dakota by Elinor Hansen, a forty-something former model turned freelance journalist. Elinor grew up only an hour away from this booming, oil-rich area, but with a Korean mother and a military father, she has always been an outsider in rural North Dakota. Now the area she once loathed for its insular nature has taken on new depths.

“Since the boom started, every quality of life indicator has taken a hit – crime, pollution, traffic, overcrowding, noise.”

“This entire stretch used to be a no-man’s land. Soon, it will be nothing but men. What’s stranger? she wonders. How different the area is, or how she barely recognizes herself within it? Everything she hated about this place when she was younger – the tightly knit communities, their isolation from the rest of the world, the boredom and piercing quiet – she suddenly misses because they’re gone. However small or stagnant life was, she used to feel safe here. No more though. She’s never felt less safe anywhere.”

Armed and concurrently burdened with life-long experience with misogyny, racism, and being exoticized, Elinor has entered what feels like a hell-scape, a town full of angry, isolationist “locals” and what they consider to be a flood of undesirable outsiders. The town of Avery has become a cauldron of conflict, full of toxic masculinity and undergirded by rampant racism.

“Elinor doesn’t want to be easier to accept or tolerate compared to other people of color because she’s female, or half Asian, or part white. All this does is buy into the idea that some people have the right to do the accepting and tolerating and comparing, while others are simply there to be judged.”

“And they’re not likely to appreciate her pointing out that racism can sometimes be ugly and overt like this, but more often than not, it’s the drop of poison in the well that people don’t notice because they’ve been drinking the same water for too long.”

The world Jung Yun depicts is brutal and unrelenting. The weight of the male gaze throughout the story is palpable and oppressive. The boiling hatreds within the story scald and bite. “O Beautiful” portrays the ugliness that is too often thinly veiled in the United States. Yun’s novel suggests – compellingly – that we are in a dystopia here and now.

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press for providing an Advance Reader Copy in exchange for a fair and honest review. “O Beautiful” comes out in the United States on 11/9/21.


The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak

“A tree is a memory keeper. Tangled beneath our roots, hidden inside our trunks, are the sinews of history, the ruins of wars nobody came to win, the bones of the missing.

The water sucked up through our boughs is the blood of the earth, the tears of the victims, and the ink of truths yet to be acknowledged. Humans, especially the victors who hold the pen that writes the annals of history, have a penchant for erasing as much as documenting. It remains to us plants to collect the untold, the unwanted. Like a cat that curls up on its favorite cushion, a tree wraps itself around the remnants of the past.”

In “The Island of Missing Trees”, the latest novel from the talented Elif Shafak, the reader gets that rare moment of anthropomorphism in adult literature. This time, it is the voice of the trees. A century-old fig tree serves as a recurring, first-person narrator and central figure in this story of civil war, trauma, and loss.

In an increasingly embattled Cyprus of the mid 1970s, Greek Cypriot Kostas and Turkish Cypriot Defne fall in love as teenagers, their forbidden love across cultural divides a familiar trope. However, at least for me, there was nothing cliched in this excavation of Cyprus, its troubled history, and the deep wounds felt not only by generations of its human inhabitants, but by all of the island’s flora and fauna. Shafak’s story proceeds along archaeological lines, carefully peeling back layer by layer with a blend of reverence, respect, and anticipation.

“If families resemble trees, as they say, arborescent structures with entangled roots and individual branches jutting out at awkward angles, family traumas are like thick, translucent resin dripping from a cut in the bark. They trickle down generations.”

As the reader uncovers the stories of Kostas and Defne’s love, of the inherited traumas of their British-born daughter, and of the devastation wrought upon Cyprus from the perspective of human and arboreal inhabitants, the deep themes of human tribalism and human exceptionalism take root. The raconteur fig tell us,

“[L]oneliness is a human invention. Trees are never lonely. Humans think they know with certainty where their being ends and someone else’s starts. With their roots tangled and caught up underground, linked to fungi and bacteria, trees harbor no such illusions. For us, everything is interconnected.”

And even the story’s human protagonists, wracked with loneliness though they are, are deeply, irrevocably interconnected.

Shafak’s newest novel is abundant with so many beautifully wrought passages, though sometimes the connections and transitions feel slightly jagged, disjointed, in need of polish. Despite the underlying thesis of interconnectedness, the narrative itself occasionally falls short in its fluidity. Though I found myself taking stutter steps between sections, the overall effect was a success, and perhaps the transitions were intentionally abrupt to juxtapose the metaphor of tangled, interwoven roots. Regardless, Shafak has gifted us with a new perspective and a thought-provoking look at the timeless motifs of geopolitics, identity, trauma, and the natural world.

Thank you to Bloomsbury for providing an Advance Reading Copy in exchange for a fair and honest review. “The Island of Missing Trees” is out in the United States on November 2, 2021.