Skip to main content

The Hive and the Honey: Stories


The Hive and the Honey: Stories

When I reviewed Paul Yoon’s second story collection, THE MOUNTAIN, in 2017, I called it an “exquisite and memorable work of art” that was especially noteworthy for the striking simplicity of its prose. THE HIVE AND THE HONEY, a collection that features some of the characteristics of that earlier work, only serves to reinforce my opinion about his considerable talent.

In seven tales that include one set in 17th-century Japan, and another in a settlement of Koreans in Russia in the 1880s, Yoon doesn’t strive for any thematic unity. All, in their essence, are character studies that feature at least one character of Korean descent and share an elegiac sensibility.

Yoon’s stories are compact and artfully constructed, so it’s possible to move through them quickly and then immediately feel the urge to return again to the beginning. That’s a useful impulse when a writer is as subtle as he is, referring, for example, to the relationship between a husband and wife as “the unfolding map of them,” or when the narrator of another story speaks of how “I have spent my life building rooms in my mind to step in or to never step in and it is as if I have built all the rooms wrong.”

"Yoon’s stories are compact and artfully constructed, so it’s possible to move through them quickly and then immediately feel the urge to return again to the beginning."

The book’s title story is told in the form of a letter from a young man, Andrei Bulavin --- of Korean heritage despite his Russian name --- who serves as a police officer on a settlement of Korean tenant farmers living in eastern Russia in the early 1880s. The story opens with a domestic dispute that erupts into murder and a lynching. As Andrei describes to his uncle, the villagers begin to encounter something they call “the apparition,” which they believe has come to haunt them in response to these outbursts of violence.

In “Person of Korea,” some 100 years later, Maksim, another young Korean bearing a Russian name, leaves the village of Korean migrant workers where he’s been living in the house of his recently deceased uncle to reunite with his father, a prison guard on Sakhalin Island. When they finally meet, his father’s laugh is a sound so alien that it feels it’s “like ash being thrown over a small fire inside him.”

Yoon is especially skilled at capturing the estrangement mingled with optimism that his characters feel living in places far from their native land. That’s demonstrated in the opening story, “Bosun,” about a Korean truck driver in Queens whose involvement with a stolen goods ring lands him 10 months in an upstate New York prison. When he’s released, he makes his way to a small town he’s learned about from one of his fellow inmates and finds a job providing security at a Mohawk casino. In the story’s concluding paragraph, Bosun “suddenly felt that he had come a long way and that something great was going to happen to him, maybe not tonight or tomorrow, but soon.”

There’s something of that same feeling in “Cromer,” the book’s most moving story. Its protagonists are Harry and Grace, a childless couple operating a corner store in New Malden, a London neighborhood that’s home to Europe’s largest Korean community. Friends from childhood, they’re the offspring of fathers who defected from North Korea to England in the early 1970s, married South Korean women, and established new lives there. After an incident when a young boy, the victim of an apparent attack, appears at their store and can only utter the word “Cromer” --- the name of the seaside town where they spent their honeymoon --- Harry and Grace decide to return there for a winter holiday. They relive some of that experience and reflect on the stories of their father’s difficult lives in their adopted country.

Narrated by samurai Toshio Yamashita, “At the Post Station” is the story of the journey that he and his fellow warrior Hiroko take in 1608 accompanying a boy they’ve nicknamed Yumi, a 10-year-old orphan, a “casualty of the invasion of Korea” whose life in Japan “was given to him because we took his first one before it even started.” They are delivering the boy to a caretaker who will escort him back to Korea in a story that relies primarily on a well-constructed atmosphere for its artistic effect.

The remaining stories in THE HIVE AND THE HONEY share many characteristics with these tales. The only regret one will have when completing the collection is that it doesn’t contain more examples of Paul Yoon’s accomplished work.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on October 28, 2023

The Hive and the Honey: Stories
by Paul Yoon

  • Publication Date: October 10, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction, Short Stories
  • Hardcover: 160 pages
  • Publisher: S&S/Marysue Rucci Books
  • ISBN-10: 1668020793
  • ISBN-13: 9781668020791