“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.