Crying In H Mart (2021): Book Review
Well, this is a first.
I'm a few weeks removed from finishing Michelle Zauner's memoir about her experiences dealing with her mother growing up and her experiences standing alongside her mother as she fought stage-four pancreatic cancer, Crying In H Mart. I haven't been able to stop thinking about the book since. It sticks at the forefront of the mind. When I walk past a grocery store (H Mart or otherwise), my mind is instantly filled with Zauner's vivid words about the power of food throughout her lifetime, and how various foods were the glue between her and her mother's relationship. When I listen to a song by Zauner, who performs under the name Japanese Breakfast, I sift through her lyrics like files, making note of the connections between Zauner's words in prose and her words in poetry (the first paragraph of 2017's "This House" has a strong connection in particular). It's affected me so much that I'm sitting here, for the first time in my life, writing a book review for the site.
Crying In H Mart opens with this essay of the same name, written by Zauner in 2018 and featured in The New Yorker. Setting a somber tone right from the start, Zauner gives exactly what the book's title describes by no later for the first sentence. From there, her words take the steering wheel, using the abruptness of the first few sentences to build a bond with a reader before instantly taking them on a journey through the happenings of a H Mart on a normal day, and how it's completely different – and more comforting – than your local grocery store could ever be. It is also here where Zauner sets the dynamic of how the grocery store actually brings her closer to her mother, highlighting how with a Korean mother and American father, she often dealt (and still deals with) the clash of two very different cultures. It's an essay – or chapter – that consistently feels relatable, even though it's brimming with personal anecdotes about Zauner and her mother from start to finish. Because right from the start, Zauner makes clear that regardless of who we are, what age we are, or where we come from, "We’re all searching for a piece of home, or a piece of ourselves" (Zauner 2018).
From there, Zauner spends the rest of the book weaving in and out of certain moments in her life, similar to a film using flashbacks to puzzle the plot's separate pieces together. The long-running thread in the memoir is her mother's pancreatic cancer diagnosis, and her family's fight trying to keep her mother alive and healthy amidst all of the constant hopelessness. It's a harrowing story, and one that doesn't hold back from telling the events exactly how they went. Zauner's use of flashbacks to moments in her life leading up to the memoir's main subject, though, makes Crying In H Mart truly sinks in with the reader even more. Rather than being focused on a specific time and situation, Zauner uses her complex experiences to craft a memoir that provides constant introspection and rumination for each reader on ideas like culture, the pains of growing up, and watching the people we love going through so much from afar knowing, with so much pain, that there's nothing we can do about it.
Telling a story in this style and doing it effectively is a task in itself. But right from that first chapter of the book, Zauner shows that her writing chops are up to par. Even with my high expectations for the book in general, I wasn't expecting the writing to be this incredible, especially given that this is Zauner's debut book. There's a certain fragility within every one of Zauner's sentences, aided by this sense that with every recount of a story or moment, she is communicating directly with each individual reader, on a deeply personal level. Writing that creates and maintains this effect isn't very common these days, and in general, Zauner writes with the skill and confidence similar to a veteran author.
But even with the incredible storytelling and writing skills , at its core, Crying In H Mart is simply a story about a mother and a daughter just trying to understand and love each other amidst all of the hurt they have caused one another over the years. It's a book that is constantly highlighting the power and instability of personal relationships, but on a grander level, the instability of love and life itself. Furthermore, just as Zauner highlights in the book's opening chapter, Crying In H Mart shows how the memories of the people and things that we have lost are all around us, all of the time, in the most unique of ways but also in the simplest too.