In the West, it can be difficult to justify and balance out Eastern traditions and deep rooted beliefs. Catherine Cho and her husband James are Korean but live in London. Inferno is a powerful memoir surrounding the events that happen after the birth of their child.
In Korean tradition, mother and baby don’t leave the house for 100 days after the birth. A number of Asian countries believe in this practice. But Catherine and James break this ‘rule’ and travel from the UK to the US to introduce their baby to their friends and family. And it is here, just under three months after giving birth, Catherine starts to experience psychosis. Postpartum depression is only starting to get talked about, and postpartum psychosis is still little understood and widely discredited. Cho spends two weeks in an institutional facility, where she is kept away from her family and shackled.
The narrative switches between the past and the present. Catherine’s childhood, her relationship with her immigrant parents, and her past relationships are all provided as flashbacks. It is as if these elements are meant to provide background to her feelings. But they don’t, and it is designed that way, because psychosis cannot be explained. The chapters that deal with her time in the ward are sharp and short. This is clever and puts the reader in an unsettled frame of mind. At one point, I am already worrying about the safety of the child.
An overarching theme is the balance of tradition and modernity. Living outwith the country of one’s birth and in a different culture, it can be exhausting to explain the meaning behind beliefs to others. A number of these ‘rules’ seem silly or over-the-top to people who have not grown up with it. And it is this tension that leaves people uncertain, particularly at times of emotional vulnerability, like childbirth.
Cho’s work is deep and brutal but it presents the realities of a difficult medical condition with honesty. And in its ending, it presents some light at the end of a tunnel, welcome in the times we live in today.