Into This World, the new novel by Chattanooga author Sybil Baker, is rife with characters whose lives have not unfolded according to plan. Two sisters find themselves stuck, unable to move forward without revisiting their past—in the process making a shocking discovery about their father. Baker’s enthralling story follows a family caught in a web of secrets that must come unraveled before everyone involved can make the changes necessary to move forward.
“You’re giving up stability for the unknown,” Wayne Morehouse tells his thirty-five-year-old daughter, Allison, after she divorces her husband, moves back home with her parents, and abruptly walks off her job as a technical writer, which she has held for thirteen years. Wayne’s observation foreshadows the tumult about to overtake both Allison and his other child, thirty-two-year-old Mina. Moments after his pronouncement, the phone rings. The connection isn’t great. Calling from her apartment in Seoul, Korea, Mina asks Wayne if he’s her father.
The truth is complicated. All her life, Mina’s been told she was adopted at age three from an orphanage in Korea, where Wayne found her while serving in the military. In Tennessee, he and his wife, Bonnie, raised her as their own child. When Mina leaves home to return to Korea, her goal is to find her birth mother, the key to her “lost self,” as she calls it. What she uncovers instead is the possibility that Wayne is actually her biological father.
Mina and Allison have a fractured, tenuous relationship. Their personalities and goals couldn’t be more different. Allison, “the stable one,” has dreamed of having a baby but has suffered five miscarriages. Mina, easily bored and noncommittal, “had never expressed a desire to marry.” What inspires Allison to quit her job is the discovery that Mina has had an affair with the married man Allison has been infatuated with for more than a decade: her boss, Ray. Allison resolves to visit her sister in Korea, but before she leaves for the month-long trip, her parents make an astonishing offer: if she brings Mina back from Korea, they will give Allison their house: “Allison told them she couldn’t make Mina do anything, they knew that,” Baker writes. “She told them she wasn’t even sure if she wanted the house, though deep down she did.”
Less than two weeks after Allison’s arrival in Seoul, Mina disappears.
The ensuing chapters are intercut with scenes from Wayne’s time in the military during the late seventies. At twenty-two, he is married already, though Bonnie and baby Allison are back home in Tennessee. Other soldiers sleep with prostitutes, but Wayne is resolved to steer clear of sexual entanglements. After two months, however, he meets a Korean teenager who goes by the name of Sunny, and he offers her a job as a live-in housekeeper and cook. Soon Wayne has failed in his resolution to keep things nonsexual, and Sunny discovers she’s pregnant. Decades later, Mina’s determined to find Sunny, Allison’s desperate to find Mina, and Wayne, from thousands of miles away, continues to insist that he found Mina in an orphanage.
A major theme of the book is the reconciliation of honesty and lies. By concealing the truth of Mina’s birth, Wayne has lived a double life. Allison’s adulterous boss has misrepresented the kind of person he is: “He really believed he was entitled to Merry [his wife] and those golden-haired daughters, to a steady job, and to his darker side.” So Allison has harbored a bone-deep, decade-long crush on a man who, it turns out, isn’t worthy of her time. Meanwhile, Mina has felt adrift since her promiscuous teenage years, presenting herself as a responsible, wholesome girl to her parents. For her, the key to being at peace begins with learning the truth about her roots.
Baker, a professor of creative writing at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga, is the author of two previous books, The Life Plan and Talismans. Like Into This World, each centers on a young American woman traveling in Asia. Having taught for twelve years in South Korea, Baker is intimately attuned to the nuances of Korean culture and the experience it offers expatriates. She makes the location as live as vividly as her characters do, and she brings the Morehouse family drama to life with keenly observed details.
Readers love playing detective, and Baker offers ample opportunity to piece together clues about the mysteries in Into This World. Every member of the family in this story is flawed; the beauty of the narrative lies in how they fit together anyway. With its complicated, authentic characters and a suspenseful premise, Into This World works as both a mystery and a family drama.
Sybil Baker will read from Into This World on May 23 at Winder Binder Gallery and Bookstore in Chattanooga at 7 p.m. Wine and light refreshments will be provided. The event is free and open to the public.