Shelter derives almost all of its drama from family dynamics, yet it manages to read like the most suspenseful of thrillers. Yes, the family arcs involve plenty of violence — as well as a few truly jaw-dropping turns of events — but the shifts and swerves of these relationships have their own intense propulsion that compels on a purely emotional plane. None of Yun's characters are particularly likable; some of them cross lines that seem to preclude forgiveness. But even the monsters are recognizably human, and the Cho family's redemption remains worth hoping for, even when it seems impossible and undeserved.
Race politics weave throughout the novel but the most interesting commentary on race and ethnicity lies in its critique of the American dream through the parallel stories of an unhinged family, the housing crisis and a random act of violence ... The novel is gripping, more so for its plot than its prose. Even when the narrative feels a tiny bit over the top, you are compelled to turn another page. The flat tone of the writing keeps the story from being melodramatic — it keeps excess at bay.
The combination of grisly James Patterson thriller and melancholic suburban drama shouldn’t work at all. Yet Ms. Yun pulls it off. Kyung is petulant and unlikeable, but he’s also psychologically unstable. The proximity of his parents and the atmosphere of grief and panic launch him on a spiral of self-destruction that’s impossible to turn away from. The novel grows darker and darker, until all its internal contradictions are eclipsed by an ending as disturbing and bereft as anything you’ll read this year.
Shelter feels slightly out of step, a desperate howl from the half-generation between the straightforward, gendered culture clash of Jin’s generation and the progressive, gender-disrupting individuation of mine. The book’s gaze is fixed firmly backward, sons suffering for the sins of their fathers, tortured and hostile men begetting more of the same. There’s reason to hope this is becoming yesterday’s story, and the world is ready for something new.
Yun makes the tension inside Kyung visceral and unbearable as the complex knot of anger and pity he wrestles with hardens into a confused rage. With its major events occurring at the book’s beginning and end, the middle is left as a sort of extended character study, where Yun skillfully makes Kyung’s unraveling feel fast-paced and urgent.