(Simon & Schuster; 208 pages; $22)
“That winter, during a rainfall,” Yohan “arrived in Brazil,” Paul Yoon, 5 Under 35 National Book Foundation honoree, writes in his lyrical and arresting debut Snow Hunters. Yohan, a North Korean war refugee, seeks a new life in Brazil but cannot escape his past, even half a world away, in a port town on the country’s coast. Yoon’s quiet yet wise protagonist and his measured yet moving language drive this relatively short novel. Snow Hunters may be 194 pages, but it sure packs an emotional punch.
Yoon opens Snow Hunters with the kind of intense sentiment that comes to exemplify the novel as a whole. As the cargo ship on which he is a passenger docks in a Brazilian harbor, Yohan helps the crew unload. A sailor offers him a blue umbrella. “From the child,” the sailor explains and points “up at the ship” where Yohan sees “a crown of hair and the length of a pale scarf gliding along the sky.” A boy runs “after her, waving.” Yohan hears the “delicacy and assuredness” of the girl’s voice, “the way it” rises “like a kite, the foreign cadence of words in another language.” Her kindness, her laughter, and even the sight of children at play are a balm for Yohan.
When Yohan immigrates to Brazil, he is only 25; his age belies both the horrors and hardships of war he has witnessed. Seeking to escape his shattered past, Yohan has defected from North Korea. Yoon eloquently and tenderly intersperses flashbacks into the narrative, memories that take Yohan and readers back to Yohan’s homeland. Here, Yoon delivers the same vivid and moving descriptions of Yohan’s past as he first illustrated his protagonist’s arrival in Brazil. For example, American soldiers find Yohan and his friend and fellow soldier Peng, who had been on patrol, among bombed-out wreckage. “Among the men he and Peng had lived with, walked with, fought and slept beside, they were the only survivors of the bombing.” This reality is sobering, especially once Yoon reveals that the Americans discovered them only because Yohan’s nose stuck up out of the snow, like a “carrot.” The title is taken from another, equally poignant, scene in Yohan’s past when he and Peng see a Korean family scavenging in the snow. Peng remarks that they look like “snow hunters…the way they moved across the snow like acrobats, their bright forms growing smaller in the night….” Yohan may call a new country home, but the Korean War remains a part of his identity, and he is haunted by the conflict.
Slowly, Yohan becomes part of his adopted country. New friends alleviate the pain as they each mark Yohan’s life in his or her own way: the Japanese tailor, Kiyoshi, for whom Yohan serves as apprentice; Peixe, the groundskeeper at a local church who suffered from polio as a child and walks with a cane; and the “beggar children” Bia and Santi who flit in and out of Yohan’s life. These may be minor characters, but they happen to play significant roles in Yohan’s life.
Snow Hunters explores war, memory, identity, home, loss, trauma, forgiveness, and love—universal themes that appeal to all of us regardless of the nation in which we live. With prose that begs to be savored, Snow Hunters proves Yoon is one of the most talented writers of his generation, and I cannot wait to see what his imagination yields next. Yoon’s passages often read like poetry. I rarely read a sentence much less a paragraph or two over and over again, but I relished Yoon’s elegiac and commanding language. His sentimentality makes Snow Hunters both unforgettable and stirring, which is a powerful combination. Yohan is a simple man, but he is one of the most highly-developed characters I have ever had the pleasure of getting to know.