Of more journalistic and sociological than literary interest, without the inventiveness of recent writing south of the 38th...



Fugitive fiction—literally—from inside North Korea, devastatingly critical of the Kim dynasty and its workers’ paradise.

What do you do when your baby cries at a solemn gathering? You excuse yourself and leave the room—unless you’re standing before a huge portrait of your beloved leader alongside beloved runner-up Karl Marx, in which case you pray that the baby in question does not bring down suspicion on your head as an enemy of the state, a saboteur, and that the tears do not unleash mythological monsters, to say nothing of “hundreds of figures hovering at [the] windows, peering out like rabbits from their burrows, eyes narrowed in accusation.” A squalling infant might be one thing, a drawn curtain another, a bird cage another still: in claustrophobic North Korea, everything has significance, and though ordinary communication comes barking down from loudspeakers, it’s the silences and pauses that carry more than their share of the weight. In these seven stories, Bandi—the name means “firefly” in Korean—describes, with numbing gravity, how awful life inside a totalitarian state really is. “What do you think, Comrade Hong,” says one bureaucrat, thinking his way through a worker’s crime of holding hands with a “factory girl.” “Can this be classed a general incident, or is it a political matter?” There is a streak of satire in these stories, but mostly they are grimly realistic. Bandi is rumored to be a writer within the government, and certainly the author has access to the broad sweep of North Korean society, from industrial workers and farmers to midlevel political functionaries; all are equally oppressed by an all-encompassing system that crushes ordinary emotion and replaces it with piety. Laments one young cadre, “Oh, when would Min-hyuk’s uncle be allowed to join the Party and see his true worth discovered?”

Of more journalistic and sociological than literary interest, without the inventiveness of recent writing south of the 38th parallel—but still an important document of witness.

Pub Date: March 17, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-8021-2620-7

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: Dec. 26, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2017

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It's being called a novel, but it is more a hybrid: short-stories/essays/confessions about the Vietnam War—the subject that O'Brien reasonably comes back to with every book. Some of these stories/memoirs are very good in their starkness and factualness: the title piece, about what a foot soldier actually has on him (weights included) at any given time, lends a palpability that makes the emotional freight (fear, horror, guilt) correspond superbly. Maybe the most moving piece here is "On The Rainy River," about a draftee's ambivalence about going, and how he decided to go: "I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to." But so much else is so structurally coy that real effects are muted and disadvantaged: O'Brien is writing a book more about earnestness than about war, and the peekaboos of this isn't really me but of course it truly is serve no true purpose. They make this an annoyingly arty book, hiding more than not behind Hemingwayesque time-signatures and puerile repetitions about war (and memory and everything else, for that matter) being hell and heaven both. A disappointment.

Pub Date: March 28, 1990

ISBN: 0618706410

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1990

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Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.


One of America’s great novelists (Lost Memory of Skin, 2011, etc.) also writes excellent stories, as his sixth collection reminds readers.

Don’t expect atmospheric mood poems or avant-garde stylistic games in these dozen tales. Banks is a traditionalist, interested in narrative and character development; his simple, flexible prose doesn’t call attention to itself as it serves those aims. The intricate, not necessarily permanent bonds of family are a central concern. The bleak, stoic “Former Marine” depicts an aging father driven to extremes because he’s too proud to admit to his adult sons that he can no longer take care of himself. In the heartbreaking title story, the death of a beloved dog signals the final rupture in a family already rent by divorce. Fraught marriages in all their variety are unsparingly scrutinized in “Christmas Party,” Big Dog” and “The Outer Banks." But as the collection moves along, interactions with strangers begin to occupy center stage. The protagonist of “The Invisible Parrot” transcends the anxieties of his hard-pressed life through an impromptu act of generosity to a junkie. A man waiting in an airport bar is the uneasy recipient of confidences about “Searching for Veronica” from a woman whose truthfulness and motives he begins to suspect, until he flees since “the only safe response is to quarantine yourself.” Lurking menace that erupts into violence features in many Banks novels, and here, it provides jarring climaxes to two otherwise solid stories, “Blue” and “The Green Door.” Yet Banks quietly conveys compassion for even the darkest of his characters. Many of them (like their author) are older, at a point in life where options narrow and the future is uncomfortably close at hand—which is why widowed Isabel’s fearless shucking of her confining past is so exhilarating in “SnowBirds,” albeit counterbalanced by her friend Jane’s bleak acceptance of her own limited prospects.

Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-185765-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Sept. 1, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

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