Returning to the Land of the Morning Calm by Hans M Hirschi
Martin is eighty-four years old, a Korean War veteran, living quietly in a retirement home in upstate New York. His days are ruled by the routine of the staff, but in his thoughts and dreams, Martin often returns to the Seoul of his youth, and the lost true love of his life. Two close friends urge him to travel back to search for his love. What awaits Martin in Korea, more than six decades after he left the country on a troop transport back to the U.S.?
Returning to the Land of the Morning Calm is a story of friendship, love, and family, in all its many shapes, across time, generations and cultures.
About the author:
Hans M Hirschi has been writing stories ever since he was a child. Adulthood and the demands of corporate life put an end to his fictional writing for over twenty years. A global executive in training and channel development, Hans has traveled the world extensively and published a couple of non-fictional titles on learning and management.
The birth of his son and the subsequent parental leave provided him with the opportunity to once again unleash his creative writing, writing feel-good stories you’ll remember.
Having little influence over his brain’s creative workings, he simply indulges it and goes with the flow. However, the deep passion for a better world, for love and tolerance are a read thread throughout both his creative and non-fictional work.
Hans lives with his husband, son, and pets on a small island off the west coast of Sweden. English isn’t his first or even second language. It’s his seventh!
Contact Hans through his website at http://www.hirschi.se
Thanks to the publishing company and to the author for providing me an ARC copy of this book prior to its publication that I freely chose to review.
I met the Hans Hirschi through Twitter and his blog, and after having read a number of his fiction books (I have a few still pending, but I hope I’ll catch up on them at some point), I’ve reviewed them (you can check my most recent review of one of his books here), and I’ve become a fan. One of the things that I particularly enjoy about the author’s blog is the way he talks about the process of writing his books. As they are about a variety of topics (they fall within the LGBT fiction general remit, but they do touch on many other subjects, from dementia to architecture, from music to looking after somebody with a serious illness, and they are also set in a variety of places, from India to Sweden), the process of his research and the choices he has to make are fascinating, especially for a writer or anybody interested in the sweat, blood, and tears behind a book’s creation. In this case, I had read about the language difficulties (as part of the book is set in Korea, in the early 1950s, and in the present), a visit to Korea to get a sense of the place, the historical part of it… and I was very intrigued, as it is not a country I am familiar with, other than through the snippets I get from the news. So I was very happy when I was given the opportunity to read this book ahead of its publication. And I can reassure those who know Mr. Hirschi as the Queen of Unconventional Happy Endings. He’s done it again.
This book, perhaps the most romantic of the books I’ve read so far by this author, in my opinion, is about a love story that has survived incredible odds and lasted almost a whole lifetime. Despite being separated by different continents, being from different backgrounds, and hardly knowing each other’s languages and customs, two young men meet in Korea shortly after the war (in 1953) and feel attracted to each other. One, Martin, is an African-American soldier with a penchant for languages, helping the UN with the pacification tasks. The other, Ji-Hoon, is a young man working at the family restaurant, whose future path has been decided for him. He will get married and inherit the family business. They are both young, beautiful, and inexperienced. In such strange circumstances, they meet and get to know each other. Martin helps Ji-Hoon’s family providing supplies as often as he can, and he ends up becoming a friend of the whole family. But, they are not meant to be together. Martin goes back to the US and never meets anybody he feels the same about as he did for Ji-Hoon. He knows he was going to get married, but after a brief epistolary contact, they lose touch. Now in his eighties, thanks to a new nurse at the nursing home where he is staying, Kevin, and to the brother of one of the other residents, Eugene, he is encouraged to find out what happened to the true love of his life.
The story, although written in the third person, is told from Martin’s point of view. There are chapters set in the present, interspersed with chapters that took place in Korea after the war, providing the readers the background to understand both, the love story, and also how time has passed and changed things. There is a fair amount of telling in the book, as Martin, who is, in many ways, old-fashioned, not used to talking about his feelings, and of a generation where being openly gay was not the done thing (and in his case, being compounded by the race issue it would have made his life even harder), lives pretty much a quiet life, full of memories of the one event and emotion that really shook his world. Martin is confronted by some openly gay men (very different in outlook: Kevin, a Goth nurse who has trouble fitting in, but not with his sexuality; Eugene, who found a refuge for his more flamboyant mannerisms in an acting career; and Eugene’s nephew, who is married to another man and has children and a blissful family life, other than the conflict with his mother) and their questions and different outlooks make him, in a way, come of age and wonder, not only how things could have been, but also, why things could be. The fact that men still find him attractive, and there is still plenty of life left in him, together with the encouragement he receives, makes him go back to Korea pursuing the love of his youth.
The beautifully detailed writing manages to bring Korea to life, both in the post-war era and now. We share in Martin’s point of view and that makes us see the beauty of it, the wonder, but also the confusion and how much it has changed when we get to the present. The descriptions of places, food, and moments are emotional and beautiful. Korea and the way it has changed over time parallels what has happened to Martin. There are traces of the past, love for respect and tradition, but some of the old things had to be removed to make way for the new, and some could not be saved. It is not all for the better, but there is still beauty there, and its people are still the people Martin felt so fond of.
In some ways, we know little about Martin, who is not somebody who talks about him easily, and who only makes passing comments about his previous life and shares some brief snippets about his parents, his work, and his lovers over the years, but does not dwell on them. He is a modest and humble man who seems unaware of how much people like him or how fond they are of him. He is a credible character, and his doubts and hesitations fit in well with his age, his outlook on life, and also the effect he has on others. At the same time, his exploration of life and his perfect role as an observer when he first goes to Korea and on his return help readers explore and feel at one with him, sharing in his wonder and confusion.
Apart from Korea and the love story at the heart of the book, there are many other themes that come into play and create a complex background. The three men who end up going to Korea face some challenges and prejudice. While Martin could hide his sexual orientation, his skin colour was there for everybody to see, and being in the military he was fully aware of how different a treatment he was likely to receive from his colleagues. Eugene could not hide his gayness and pass for straight, and his lifestyle put him at risk. We know the #MeToo does not only apply to women, and in Eugene’s case, it had serious consequences for him. He was shunned by his sister all of his life, for being who he was. And his nephew suffered the same fate. Kevin, whose looks and style-choices have made him a bit of an outsider, is a loner and feels more comfortable with Martin than with people his age. There are parallels and similarities between the —at least at first sight— very different characters, and later on, we see these parallels are also in evidence across the world, with religious beliefs and conservative traditions coming in the way of love and understanding. We see Ji-Hoon only through Martin’s eyes at first, and he is not always insightful about people around him or about how he is perceived by others, but we have an opportunity to see what impact he truly had on his friends later on in the book.
Although the story of elderly men or women trying to find a lost love is not new, I enjoyed Martin’s process of discovery and his coming into his own. I love the comradery and the way the three men helped each other, with Eugene playing the fairy godmother and facilitating the trip, Kevin providing the technical and hands-on know-how, and Martin confronting his fears to become the hero he was meant to be. This is a novel about friendship, about history, about love, and about hope. We should never lose our hope and dreams. Nothing is impossible if we don’t give up. (Ah, there is no erotica, in case that you, like me, don’t particularly enjoy it).
The author includes a recipe at the end (the dish is central to the story, so I won’t go into detail), and he also explains some of the process and the language difficulties he faced and adds a glossary of terms at the end.
A gorgeous cover, for a truly romantic book that goes beyond the standard love story and includes an ensemble of characters you’ll feel sorry to say goodbye to. I’ll be eagerly waiting for Mr. Hirschi’s next book.
Thanks to the author and the publishers, thanks to all of you for reading and remember to like, share, comment, click, REVIEW and keep on smiling!