Yeji Y. Ham asks what you remember in The Invisible Hotel

Letting go of a body you loved is hard, even after it dies. The urge to hold on, to wash it clean and care for it like nothing has changed, is only natural.

UBC BA creative writing alum Yeji Y. Ham’s debut novel The Invisible Hotel imagines a small village in rural South Korea where the urge toward morbid preservation is enshrined in local custom. Every house in Dalbitsori has a bathtub full of bones. The living wash their dead ancestors dutifully, scrubbing ribs and femurs with sponges until they shine like ivory.

But Yewon, the novel’s protagonist, chafes under these traditions, and her friends and siblings reject them outright. They dream of warm baths in empty tubs and scramble to cover the stench of decay on their clothes with perfumes and laundry detergent. After Yewon’s father dies in an accident abroad and her brother is conscripted to garrison the North Korean border, she begins to feel trapped in her hometown.

Torn between revulsion for the bones and worry for her mother who is losing herself in them, Yewon takes a job as a driver for Ms. Han, a North Korean refugee reconnecting with her estranged brother after fleeing to the South. Yewon is fascinated by Ms. Han and haunted by dreams of a strange ruined hotel. She wants to leave Dalbitsori and begin her adulthood far away from the bones.

But Yewon has a clear view of her nation’s past, and she can tell when affected amnesia hides something darker. As she ventures beyond the hills around her hometown, it becomes clear that the rest of Korea may not be quite so different from Dalbitsori as she first believed.

According to Ham, the book was inspired by her own family’s entanglement with Korea’s political history.

“On my first birthday, my grandfather passed away, which meant that on [each of my birthdays]… my family and relatives would gather together and go to his grave,” she said.

But Ham, only an infant when her grandfather died, struggled to understand the reverence that her family held for him.

“Every single time I went there, I kept thinking about this man whom I’ve never met … Growing up, my father later told me [my grandfather] was a North Korean. He endured torture in the North and had no choice but to escape, leaving behind his wife and three children that we never met.”

This revelation opened Ham’s eyes to the entanglement of “history and heritage” — how the legacy of a war almost 75 years old still touches the lives of Koreans everywhere, on and off the peninsula. But Ham fears that Korea’s youth are losing sight of this, forgetting their traditions and the lessons of the past.

The Invisible Hotel’s Yewon remembers. In dreamlike scenes whose warm, murky language conveys the comfort of forgetting, she drinks with friends and talks about summer trips, semesters abroad and romantic flings.

But the hotel is never far behind. Before long, she’s pulled back in to chase her brother through the ruined halls.

This is Seoul’s Chosun Hotel, the oldest in Korea. It survived Japanese occupation, the Second World War and the blazing back-and-forth frontlines that ravaged the city in the Korean War (unfortunately not even the stoutest of historic buildings are immune to the erosion of capitalism; the Chosun was torn down to accommodate a Westin branch that now bears its name in 1967). For Yewon, the hotel is a constant reminder of her family’s place in the complex history of the nation, a brick and mortar metaphor for Korea’s generational pain.

Ham approaches this pain through the language of the gothic, but grounds the style in realistic and personal characterization. Yewon’s mother is a spectre, wandering her family’s empty home, scrubbing her ancestors’ bones until her wrists swell and her fingers strip. But she’s also a loving caretaker who cooks Yewon meals and sends comforts to her conscripted son stationed at the border. Her fears are empathetic and reflected in Yewon’s own. Ham refuses to sacrifice the reality of her characters in service of the gothic, and avoids the pitfalls of a style that can (sometimes by design) alienate the reader from its subjects.

“I think my book is not conventional horror,” said Ham. “I think it is a bit unconventional in the sense that there's not a lot of tropes or things like that, that you see in a horror novel. But I think it's just that dread permeating the pages and the brutality of the war that actually is the horror of the novel.”

Ham’s humanism here goes hand in hand with the cinematic style that her writing takes on throughout the book. She cited experimental pseudo-documentary films like Guy Madden’s My Winnipeg and Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams as inspirations for her novel. The personal attention with which these films lavish their characters finds its way into Ham’s writing and gives The Invisible Hotel a sense of naturality and care.

Ham is currently working to get her novel translated into Korean, and anticipates its release later next year. She’s also in the first few stages of two more books.

The Invisible Hotel has been available for purchase since March 5.