Hyphenated: 'Wicked Fox' brings the fall magic

Sunday, October 11, 2020 - 6:15pm

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Courtesy of Elizabeth Yoon

Hailing from the nutmeg state, there is nothing I appreciate more than a brisk autumn morning. Early morning hikes with crisp air and crunchy leaves. A travel mug of apple cider with flannel lined boots. New pencils and freshly taken notes. Halloween is just around the corner; witches and ghouls prepped to go in the wings.There’s an unmistakable sense of possibility riding the chilly breeze as everything prepares to die. It is my solemn belief that fall, more so than any other season, has an emotional scent. Possibility, pumpkin-spice and excitement.

With that in mind, I want to turn your attention away from Netflix Original Halloween Specials and toward Kat Cho’s debut novel “Wicked Fox.”

Set in South Korea, Cho’s first novel channels the emotional scent and heft of a New England fall. Think after-school supernatural shenanigans, school-yard bullies and budding romances all tied together by Seoul’s winding streets and bubbling stew. 

After a dangerous late-night encounter with a dokkaebi, a Korean goblin, eighteen-year-old Ahn Jihoon’s life takes a turn for the strange. He’s not particularly proactive and his easy-going disposition is often seen as laziness or carelessness. When his savior from the dokkaebi, Gu Miyoung, turns up at school the next day, he finds himself gravitating to her despite her icy rebukes. Miyoung has her own problems stemming from that fateful full-moon meeting. She is half-human and half-fox demon. As a gumiho, she possesses a physical soul — a fox bead — that got knocked out of her person and into the physical world. Quickly, she must find a way to reunite herself with her soul before worse things happen.

A running theme throughout the book is family. The book explores the limits and reaches of compassion, dependance and alienation, stress testing the kids with familial strife and betrayal.

Both teens were subject to absentee parents, a fact that draws Jihoon to Miyoung. Jihoon was raised by his aging grandmother, abandoned by both his mother and father. Though his mother lives in the same city as him, she refuses to recognize him or his grandmother. Jihoon’s mother sees him as an impediment to her living a good life. Similarly, Miyoung was raised by a single authority figure, having never known her father. Miyoung’s mother, Yena, is indecipherable and decisive, a towering giant for Miyoung to live up to. Yena lived centuries before having Miyoung and was able to lead a rich life admittedly without love or connection. Despite Miyoung’s supernatural origins, Jihoon and Miyoung’s relationships demonstrate the many ways families can uplift and harm, traumatize and love. 

In “Wicked Fox,” Cho makes an incredibly complex argument about the bounds of personal liberty and familial obligation. When does personal liberty win against familial obligation? Can the two concepts co-exist and also exist in opposition? “Wicked Fox” contemplates these questions as tacit themes. There are ties that bind us to people; they exist whether we wish them to or not. Sometimes we can forge new ones and neglect old ones but can we ever truly sever them? Cho recognizes in her novel that not all parents are prepared or equipped to parent children. She makes a nuanced argument suggesting that the strongest bonds are not between mother and child but are instead the bonds maintained and forged in grandparents, friends and lovers.

Cho’s nuanced take on family excited me. I loved the concept of absent parents with secrets and great shoes to fill. “Wicked Fox” motivated me to burrow into a deep, warm blanket with a cup of tea. I read “Wicked Fox” deep into the night and later transitioned from traditional reading to audiobook to hear the story of Miyoung and Jihoon on my daily hike. 

To be perfectly honest, the audiobook wasn’t so much an audiobook as it was me taking advantage of Apple’s accessibility settings and using screen reader (a little known, helpful hack if you can stomach a quasi-robotic, halting narrator).

Some passing familiarity with k-dramas will enhance the reading experience. Though Cho is an Asian American writer, her novel delights in Korean tropes and storytelling conventions. Some of the bullying moments might seem outsized or extreme to an unfamiliar reader. But these moments of egg pelting are authorial winks, intended to recall a greater storytelling lineage. 

Regardless, I was enamored by the high school adventure of two Korean teens teetering on the edge of adolescence and adult responsibilities. Cho skillfully depicted the ties that bind us, making both familial affection and alienation real and helping contour her characters. The ties that bind us to our pasts are deep and not easily shaken. Jihoon and Miyoung must navigate their own boundaries and the limits of their compassion, unraveling their pasts to address their present. 

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For this food rec, I want to recommend dubu jjigae, Korean stew with tofu. Jihoon’s grandmother runs a traditional restaurant where she often serves up a hot bowl of jjigae with banchan.  A fun fact about the book is that Jihoon’s small yappy dog is named “Dubu,” meaning tofu in Korean. 

 

Daily Arts Columnist Lizzie Yoon can be reached at elizyoon@michigandaily.com.


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