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The Evening Hero


The Evening Hero

Nine years ago, on the invitation of a colleague, I headed out on a slushy Boston evening in the late winter to attend a fiction reading. Among the readers was Marie Myung-Ok Lee, who I knew primarily as a writer of young adult fiction. That night, however, she read from her work in progress, a novel for adults. I remember becoming deeply invested in it, struck by its blend of humor and pathos and its memorable protagonist, a Korean immigrant doctor. Ever since then, I’ve been periodically (and somewhat impatiently) checking in on the book’s publication status, eager to get the full picture of something that I only got a tantalizing glimpse of back then.

That’s why I was so gratified to finally have the opportunity to read THE EVENING HERO and get more fully acquainted with that character who made such an impression on me nearly a decade ago. I’m happy to report that the book did not disappoint; in fact, in the intervening years, it has become even richer and more complex.

"THE EVENING HERO is a novel that is remarkably complex in the best possible ways. Just when readers settle into one section, the focus changes and compels them to shift their perception and understanding all over again."

Lee’s title character is Yungman Kwak, and “Evening Hero” is the rough translation from Korean of the components of his given name. Kwak, along with his wife Young-ae, lives in Horse’s Breath, a town in northern Minnesota’s Iron Range, where Kwak is an OB/GYN at Horse’s Breath Hospital, having landed in this somewhat unexpected locale because it was the only American hospital willing to take a chance on him. Yungman is proud of the work he’s done, and of his son Einstein, who has become a doctor as well. Young-ae was also trained as a doctor (and in fact was more promising than her husband in medical school), but since giving up her career for motherhood, she has grown increasingly involved with her Korean church.

Yungman is, perhaps, looking forward to a quiet retirement, but before he can get to that point, he’s abruptly laid off when the hospital closes due to lack of profitability. Adrift, he cautiously agrees to join Einstein at a new medical startup, the “HoSPAtal,” housed at the Mall of America in the suburbs of the Twin Cities. There, he becomes more or less a glorified laser hair removal technician, while slowly realizing that his son’s luxurious lifestyle is built on speculation and empty promises.

The book gains depth and context when the narrative pulls away from what could have been a (very funny) satire about the medical industry and goes back in time to the Korean War when Yungman was a child. He and his brother were raised in a town that, depending on who drew the maps, could land in either North or South Korea. As Lee traces his coming of age during this harrowing and largely (in the West, at least) misunderstood or forgotten conflict, she starkly illustrates what was at stake for Yungman and Young-ae to be able to come to the United States in the first place.

In an author’s note, Lee acknowledges that the desire to render the historical events as accurately as possible was one reason for her novel’s long journey into publication. She is, in fact, one of a relatively small number of journalists who has had the opportunity to see North Korea from the inside. This experience, in part, informs the book’s closing section, in which Yungman and Young-ae return to a country that is both their homeland and yet has become utterly unfamiliar.

THE EVENING HERO is a novel that is remarkably complex in the best possible ways. Just when readers settle into one section, the focus changes and compels them to shift their perception and understanding all over again. It’s deliciously funny and shockingly gruesome in turns, depending on whether Lee is writing about the indignities of the workplace or the brutalities of war. The book is also about the realities of being an immigrant in the rural United States, and despite its occasionally satirical tone, Yungman’s story offers perspectives on this experience that are not often reflected in contemporary fiction.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on May 27, 2022

The Evening Hero
by Marie Myung-Ok Lee

  • Publication Date: May 16, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 1476735085
  • ISBN-13: 9781476735085