A debut novel about the plight of young women in North Korea (written before the recent death of dictator Kim Jong-il), with its socio-political insights undermined by clichés, stereotypes, plot devices and sentimentality more appropriate within a romance or even young adult novel.
The Author’s Note provides an unusual warning: “Parts of this novel reveal the physical and psychological traumas associated with human trafficking and sexual slavery. Because of the graphic and mature nature of these themes, the contents of this book may not be suitable for young readers.” A novel aimed at adults wouldn’t seem to require such a disclaimer, but it’s perhaps more fitting here. Particularly early on, both the tone and the subject matter seem more appropriate for readers of a similar age as the novel’s teenage girls, Gi and Il-sun, who become close friends at an orphanage and a factory despite the significant differences that will ultimately distinguish them. The opening part reads like a primer of everyday drudgery and illusion in the totalitarian regime, where they learn that they live in a "Worker’s Paradise," in contrast to the oppression of South Korea, where “imperialist Americans were harsh overlords.” Gi is comparatively plain and boyish, with a gift for numbers (that she keeps to herself), while Il-sun is “ripening into womanhood in the way some girls do, like a bomb exploding.” Though the two consider their friendship as “two halves finding unexpected completion,” there is little doubt that as Il-sun’s budding sexuality (whether ripening or exploding) leads her to sexy but dangerous men and ultimately to her pride in her sexual allure, she is headed for a fall. A very different fate awaits Gi, whose looks don’t give her as much to barter for her survival, but whose mathematical gifts lead to a surprising conclusion in a surprising place.
A novel for those who like lessons in international culture spiced with lines about “a dapper, flashy, dangerous bad boy whose smile had the effect of sliding her panties off her legs.”