On the second page of his debut novel Snow Hunters, Paul Yoon vividly depicts the last moments before his protagonist Yohan is liberated from a prisoner of war camp on the Korean peninsula, "where there was always a wind that carried the smell of soil and sickness" from the animals at a nearby farm. Yohan is about to catch a boat to Brazil and start a new life as a Japanese tailor's apprentice – and as he rides away in a UN truck, he "shut his eyes and dreamed of castles."
This power of this image is in its simplicity, and as the rest of the book unfolds, that minimalism becomes the story's driving, masterful force. Every word is purposeful, and there is an air of meditation in Yoon's modest sentences. While the first draft was over five hundred pages, the final is a mere 208: it's evident that only the best, most important, prose remained.
We ride with Yohan on that boat to Brazil, and are with him as he gets accustomed to his new life in a small port town, not speaking a word of Portuguese. Yet all the while, we know very little about his time at the camp, what his life was like before the war, or any of his internal reactions (to both his new and past experiences). It seems as if something is missing.
Then, half way through, the book takes a turn: it becomes clear that Yohan seems like a shell of person because that's what he is. Through flashbacks to his childhood and his time in war, we slowly see a clearer picture of a broken man, one who suffers deeply from the consequences of destruction.
And it's not just Yohan who's damaged — Yoon tactfully reveals the complex histories of other characters in his orbit: the sailor who's had to leave his family behind post-war, a World War II survivor who once lived in an internment camp, two young orphans that roam the street. Though each one has been dealt a different hand, they all are forced to reconcile their past with their present.
"For the first time in what seemed like years, Yohan thought of his father," Yoon writes. "And he understood that he would never be able to hold all the years that had gone in their entirety. That those years would begin to loosen, break apart, slip away. That there would come a time when there was just a corner, a window, a smell, a gesture, a voice to gather and assemble."
Though many of Yohan's memories are horrific, he still needs them – both the good and the bad – to try and make sense of his place in the world. Yoon's ruminations on the role of memory in shaping our identity speak perfectly to the experience of war, which his family knows something about. Yoon's Grandfather was a civilian in the Korean War who tried to escape the North, taking in orphan children along the way.
Though the book is about the consequences of war, the ideas at work in Snow Hunters brilliantly translate to the broader experience of life. Towards the end, Yohan takes a bike ride through the town before dawn: "He felt a lightness in his chest and breathed the cool air; he could taste it almost, it tasted old and rich as though it had traveled a very long way to reach him, as though he could taste the years it contained. And he felt those years and the land that it had travelled across and the people it had passed; and he thought of how it entered him and how he held it now, within him."
We all use our past in this way, as a touchstone, sometimes trying to escape it and other times wishing we could hold on. And as Yohan ultimately finds, happiness means a combination of both.