In the Wake of War in “The Invisible Hotel”


Yeji Y. Ham’s debut novel, The Invisible Hotel, is about the inescapable. The conflict between North and South Korea, simmering still beneath a fragile truce, looms as the perpetual backdrop for this contemporary tale about the fears that are dutifully passed from one generation to the next. Yewon is a young woman born and raised in the rural South Korean village of Dalbit where babies are birthed in bathtubs full of bones—the bones of their ancestors. These remains are scrubbed daily by the occupants of each house so that they never forget the war’s ultimate cost. Yewon also slips often into dreams of a rundown hotel where the specter of what could have been collides violently with what is. Somewhere within is a room that she has the key to—a room she is terrified of entering.

The story begins on the final day of Yewon’s part-time job at a convenience store. Her boss asks her to meet with a woman who needs to be driven two hours away, to a prison, to see the brother she was separated from in childhood by the war. The woman, Ms. Han, is North Korean, and still carries figurative and literal scars from her turbulent past. Yewon agrees to drive her and decides not to tell her mother, who would never approve of her traveling so far on her own. Yewon’s older sister moved away with her husband, not wishing to bear her future children among bones, and her younger brother is away serving his mandatory time in the military. Their mother scrubs the bones in the bathtub every day. Yewon and her siblings grew up learning how to do the same, and dreaming of hot baths as they washed their bodies with frigid water from the sink. The bones are never removed from their place in the tub. Though Yewon and her friend Min, already living and studying in Seoul, formed a plan long ago to save up enough money to live together in the city, Yewon is unsure if any of what she once wanted—traveling abroad to study English, living in a big city, freedom from the grip of her mother’s fear—still matters to her.

Despite being somewhat straightforward in its concerns, Invisible Hotel has enough moving parts to occasionally feel unfocused: the car trips with Ms. Han; South Korean misconceptions of North Korea, and all that remains unknown between the two; the lingering effects of Yewon’s father’s death; what Yewon wants for her life; Yewon’s relationships with other members of her family; the old man in Dalbit who is always dragging a door or window through the dirt to a clearing; the other residents of Dalbit; the bones; the hotel from Yewon’s dreams. War is the thread connecting all of these elements. Ms. Han’s history with the war, its effect on her present, and Yewon’s guilty compulsion to connect with her and learn more about her neighbors to the north takes up an immense amount of emotional space during each car trip. Yet, when each car-ride scene ends, the weight of it evaporates. This is not to say that their importance or what links them to the rest of the story disappears—only that the significance of each scene is most intensely apparent while in progress. Much like the way a dream’s intensity begins to melt away immediately upon waking.

As a reader, Yewon’s struggle to remain afloat in her own life becomes yours, and the weight of each encounter nearly unbearable. This may be due in part to Ham’s tendency to devote the bulk of her narrative energy to underscoring the most oppressive aspects of a scene. She also begins each chapter in a new environment with a new event in progress, which creates the effect of repeatedly reentering the waking world. Details of past chapters are invoked throughout the novel, but always with the clear goal of increasing the existential weight of the current scene. This produces a strange effect that I personally cannot recall having experienced before–I felt I was observing the novel’s events while trapped in agar, able to move, but only slightly; it also lends itself well to Yewon’s persistent sense of being a ghost in her own life—someone who observes, but can never truly influence events.

The dream set in the mysterious hotel repeats throughout, engulfing Yewon even as she actively lives her life. She reenters the dream in different parts of the hotel–the front desk where piles of notes lay abandoned; a decrepit dining hall where hotel guests stare at empty plates while dust settles like snow upon them; the pool, still full, its waters and unlucky occupants overtaken by algae; hallways flanked by endless rows of doors–each area a reminder of a carefree luxury that is no longer attainable. With war, there is always a before and an after. In that after lives the seed of anxiety, ready to bloom at the slightest hint of upheaval. At the mere possibility that what happened will happen again.

See Also

The Invisible Hotel is itself a strange dream. Every turn of the page is another step down a hallway that lengthens as you walk. Every advance toward resolution leads to more trauma in need of unpacking. Every newly unearthed question must be considered, whether or not its answer can ever be found. The number of hotel doors is infinite. Whenever one fear is allayed, a new one springs forth to take its place. Wars end, but their legacies of fear live on to be reckoned with.

The Invisible Hotel
by Yeji Y. Ham
Published March 5th, 2024

Gianni Washington

Gianni Washington has a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from The University of Surrey. Her writing can be found in L’Esprit Literary Review, West Trade Review, on, and in the horror anthology Brief Grislys, among other places. Her debut collection of short fiction, Flowers from the Void, is forthcoming from Serpent’s Tail (UK) Spring 2024 and Clash Books (US) Summer 2024.


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