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‘The Hive and the Honey’ Review: A Buzzworthy Fiction Collection

3.5 Stars

"The Hive and the Honey" by Paul Yoon
"The Hive and the Honey" by Paul Yoon By Courtesy of Simon and Schuster
By Daniel P. Pinckney, Crimson Staff Writer

With an unflinching and thoughtful eye for detail, Paul Yoon’s latest collection of short stories, “The Hive and the Honey,” offers readers uncommon insight into the diversity of narratives that constitute the Korean diaspora. Narratively, the pieces range widely in their sense of place, as Yoon takes readers between Edo Period Japan and 90s New York. Yet the pieces still remain stylistically and thematically cohesive throughout, even if they become a bit repetitive toward the end of the work.

That variety of stories is perhaps the most obvious draw of this new collection. With a focus on how different displaced communities of Koreans respond to their new circumstances, Yoon grapples with issues of violence, fatherhood, and alienation. He is certainly no stranger to these topics — Yoon has examined similar ideas in previous books and is the grandson of a North Korean refugee. Unsurprisingly, he treats them with well-deserved solemnity. The various settings don’t prevent Yoon from examining the same themes repeatedly, though they maintain their timeliness through careful attention to imagery.

The strain of balancing two identities — both where one comes from and where one currently lives — is the animating conflict of Yoon’s collection, though that tension manifests in a myriad of ways throughout the seven stories. An estranged and violent father, for example, embodies the search for belonging in “Person of Korea,” whereas the angst of a displaced community culminates in murder in the titular, “The Hive and the Honey.” Characters chafe against their circumstances, but overall they endure the dizzying experience of diaspora, an increasingly common experience in the globalizing world.

The overwhelming effect of displacement is captured in Yoon’s writing itself, which often feels removed and methodical. The specter of trauma hangs over many stories, but Yoon asks his readers to piece together the specific circumstances of each character. The protagonist of “Person of Korea,” Maksim, worries that his father’s new power as a prison guard has changed his relationship with violence — an uncomfortable relationship that unites the two characters. These scenes demand empathy from readers and ask them to consider what pain underlies each character.

Ambiguity also crops up in the way Yoon explores these topics of isolation and loss. His writing is characterized by an abundance of conjunctions, lists, and alternatives, as if both Yoon and his characters are settling on the right way to express themself. In “Valley of the Moon,” Yoon writes that “every night, the moon rose from here, and fell, and shattered. And then built itself back up again.” The rhythm of doubling verbs and phrases suggests the challenge of balancing the various identities of migrants.

Still, every story offers beautiful displays of Yoon’s literary strength. He is able to communicate the sense that each person has lived an entire life beyond the page with the precision of a documentarian. The tiniest details flesh out each character, such as a husband recalling the naiveté of his wife as a young girl, who “was convinced something happened to the plants when they slept.” These insights capture the humanity within everyone, which forms the moral thrust of Yoon’s collection. Each person carries that spark of goodness within them, despite circumstances that attempt to extinguish the core quality.

This clarity of detail also affords Yoon opportunities to compose evocative tableaux within each story. The protective closeness of family becomes apparent through a pair of “bodies like clamshells on the bed” in one of the stories. In another Yoon writes that “a tree was growing out of the skeleton’s mouth” to symbolize the cyclical nature of life and death. These novel images lend weight to universal themes, deftly avoiding cliché and imbuing each story with an arresting power. He wields that power most effectively in his conclusions, lending a poetic finality to each piece.

The strongest stories in this collection encapsulate Yoon’s commitment to novel imagery and character. The second story, “Komarov,” builds to a beautiful conclusion through careful plotting and character detail. In “Cromer,” Yoon artfully captures the portrait of a marriage that is slowly fading under the strain of daily life. These investigations of universal human worries through Yoon’s specific lens and style elevate this collection as one of the year’s best. Expertly crafted and thematically resonant, “The Hive and the Honey” feels like one of this year’s essential reads.

—Staff writer Daniel P. Pinckney can be reached at daniel.pinckney@thecrimson.com.

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