Two sisters, estranged by circumstance, seek to forge a bond and understand their individual and shared histories.
Inja and Miran are near twins. Remarkably close in age, both are artistic and sensitive. But when the novel opens, in 1950, the two girls live on separate continents: When Miran’s parents left South Korea for the United States, they were only able to travel with one child. They chose Miran, who had been in poor health as an infant, and left Inja behind with her maternal grandparents, aunt and uncle. Though the family had planned to return for Inja, North Korean troops invade South Korea and war breaks out. Inja and her relatives are displaced to Busan, enduring hunger, cold, and constant instability; in America, Miran struggles to understand her parents’ anxiety and helplessness as they wait for news. The novel stretches from the early 1950s through the mid-'70s, alternating between Inja’s adolescence in a divided Korea and Miran’s coming-of-age in a differently tumultuous USA. Based loosely on Kim’s (The Calligrapher’s Daughter, 2009) own family history, as detailed in the author’s note, this elegant though frequently sentimental novel relies on the power of family secrets to propel the reader through the sisters’ lives. Inja, contemplating all she does not know of her American family—and vice versa—notes “the strange kind of power one gained from holding secrets.” Will Inja ever know the sister who is practically her twin? Will either sister ever truly understand Korea or America, or will they continue to exist in the space between?
Though the novel is quiet and occasionally dense with historical exposition, it offers a valuable window into Korean history as well as to issues like immigration and assimilation that couldn’t be more relevant today.