Neither happiness nor sadness are ever done with us. They are always passing by.– The Magical Language of Others
Summary and Thoughts
The Magical Language of Others is a powerful and aching love story in letters, from mother to daughter. After living in America for over a decade, Eun Ji Koh’s parents return to South Korea for work, leaving fifteen-year-old Eun Ji and her brother behind in California. Overnight, Eun Ji finds herself abandoned and adrift in a world made strange by her mother’s absence. Her mother writes letters, in Korean, over the years seeking forgiveness and love—letters Eun Ji cannot fully understand until she finds them years later hidden in a box.
As Eun Ji translates the letters, she looks to history—her grandmother Jun’s years as a lovesick wife in Daejeon, the horrors her grandmother Kumiko witnessed during the Jeju Island Massacre—and to poetry, as well as her own lived experience to answer questions inside all of us. Where do the stories of our mothers and grandmothers end and ours begin? How do we find words—in Korean, Japanese, English, or any language—to articulate the profound ways that distance can shape love? Eun Ji Koh fearlessly grapples with forgiveness, reconciliation, legacy, and intergenerational trauma, arriving at insights that are essential reading for anyone who has ever had to balance love, longing, heartbreak, and joy.
The Magical Language of Others weaves a profound tale of hard-won selfhood and our deep bonds to family, place, and language, introducing—in Eun Ji Koh—a singular, incandescent voice.
Though it took me some time to get into this memoir, when I finally found my grove, I thoroughly enjoyed The Magical Language of Others. E.J. Koh is an artful writer, her language poetic and nuanced, her scenes flowing into each other with ease. Listening (audiobook!) to Koh reconcile with her own struggles as well as the history of her mother and grandmother was a unique experience, the pain and longing evident in each vignette. With this being said, oftentimes I found my attention drifting a bit when it came to Koh’s own personal life and adolescence, though I quickly regained interest towards the end. For this reason, while I would definitely recommend this book to others, for me, there wasn’t enough consistency in the emotional narrative to make it personally rememberable.
For Those Who Enjoy
- Butterfly Yellow by Thanhha Lai
- How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays by Alexander Chee
- All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung
- The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui