In her newest young adult #ownvoices novel, Mary H.K. Choi writes about two Korean-American sisters struggling to cope with individual illnesses. As Choi discusses in a Refinery29 interview, Yolk delves into the “shame around illness, the idea that being sick is a ‘moral failure,’ and that talking about it is even worse—a plea for attention.” Combining descriptive, poetic prose with authentically flawed characters, Choi’s book is an emotional rollercoaster that invites readers to dive in at least once.
Jayne Baek is studying fashion at design school in New York, struggling to maintain financial stability with a freeloading not-quite-boyfriend/roommate while surrounded by a shallow circle of friends. On top of that, she attempts to cope with an eating disorder in addition to her depression and anxiety.
None of which is made easier when she finds out that her sister has been diagnosed with uterine cancer. June Baek is the successful older sister—the one who attended Columbia, has a high-paying finance job with a nice apartment in New York—the whole nine yards. Until everything begins to fall apart when she is diagnosed with uterine cancer and forced to commit insurance fraud to receive appropriate treatment.
Yolk doesn’t feature likable characters. The characters are unlikable in the most authentic way, all individuals who are deeply flawed but relatable in their authenticity. The complexity of her characters only makes Choi’s delivery more impactful, especially as readers get a glimpse into the conflicted emotions between Jayne and her sister June. Choi digs beyond immediate emotions of love and duty to look toward the resentment and jealousy lying underneath—the darker and more competitive side of sisterhood and filial piety.
Featuring first-generation characters who come from immigrant families, the themes of family and sisterhood become more layered. Choi invites discussion in Yolk about the implications of these identities between characters as well as in the contextualization of the book itself. Set in New York City, featuring unlikable but heavily relatable protagonists, and focusing on the darker human emotions, Choi’s novel resonates strongly as one that incites complex feelings in readers.
While the writing takes a little while to get used to, the prose is beautifully descriptive and lyrical, bordering on poetic at times. Choi is able to capture specific collective experiences of childhood and growth in such poignantly descriptive language. Through Mary H.K. Choi’s incredible imagery and ability to capture such strong emotion, Yolk delivers on its premise’s promises in a pleasantly surprising way. I am tempted to read the book once more purely for the writing and descriptive imagery.
For a resonant and complexly multi-layered novel, Yolk is the perfect novel for our contemporary moment.
*As a content warning, some sensitive topics that the book delves into fairly deeply include mental illness such as anxiety and depression, eating disorders, uterine cancer and (in)fertility.
Yolk by Mary H.K. Choi was released on March 2, 2021.