Korea serves as a perfect crucible for Kim’s expansive and impressive historical fiction debut, in which the characters must struggle against overwhelming odds.
As a boy, Kim Young Nam lives on a small farm in Korea with his family, but they are not spared the rigors and privations that result from the Japanese occupation. Even a staple like rice is a luxury, and fish from the nearby river is in scarce supply. The Christian Kim family is banned from practicing their faith freely. Instead, they must abide by the principles of Shinto, the Japanese state-sanctioned religion. Young Nam hopes he’ll find his salvation in education, that he will somehow realize his yangban (scholar) ancestry and find a way out of the misery. In a country full of survivors, Nam’s is not the only exceptional tale. In another narrative, 12-year-old Lee Hana works as a “comfort woman” in the Korean Women’s Voluntary Service Corp. Hana’s life will intersect Nam’s. The novel begins with a Korean proverb that describes them both: “Fall seven times, get up eight.” Although Kim’s prose is sometimes stilted, her vision is powerfully executed, taking readers through all the important landmarks of 20th-century Korean history, including the end of Japanese occupation and the division of Korea. The horrors of war pervade the novel, making one occasionally wish for a little break in the bleakness. Nevertheless, humanity’s many joys also manage to slip through the darkness. “When a tiger dies, he leaves a pelt; when a man dies, he leaves his name,” Kim writes. In a sense, this is a story of rebirth as much as it of survival.
Unfolding against a sprawling canvas, an absorbing tale of characters shedding their identities and reinventing themselves, despite being battered by war.