Fleeing famine and the misfortune of her family, a young woman embarks on a perilous quest to survive in South Korean novelist Hwang’s (Familiar Things, 2018, etc.) latest.
The youngest in a family of seven daughters in 1980s North Korea, Bari’s arrival into the world brings great disappointment. Named after an old Korean myth—wherein an abandoned princess searches the globe for an elixir that will bring peace to the dead—Bari is abandoned at birth but later found and brought home by her family’s dog. To the delight of Bari's grandmother, the girl has inherited their ancestors’ gift of sight, an ability she surreptitiously helps Bari nurture. When famine sweeps North Korea in the 1990s, news arrives that Bari’s uncle has defected to the south, bringing with it harrowing realities that infect and dismantle their home. The family fractures, and Bari, her grandmother, sister Hyun, and dog, Chilsung (with whom Bari speaks telepathically), are smuggled across the border to China. Alas, no sooner do they find safety than Hyun, Grandmother, and Chilsung die within months of each other. Despondent and alone, 13-year-old Bari ends up in Yanji, working as an apprentice at a foot massage parlor. It’s there that she discovers her unique ability to map strangers’ lives through touching them. After an unpaid debt upends the business, Bari lands in the bottom of a cramped cargo ship on its way to England. In the ship’s darkness, she dissociates, slipping into “layers of the otherworld,” each sensation “like soft fabric tearing each time I shed my body.” This transient place that Hwang expertly builds conjures the disorientation brought by tragedy. In its unnerving darkness we wonder, as Bari falls further away from her body, if she might never make it back to the surface. In London, Bari’s consciousness elasticizes, making room for her permeable worlds to coexist. As her body takes root in a new place, Bari finds love and even happiness, and eventually finds work as a healer, helping others mine their sorrows. Still, with growth comes deep pain, and Hwang uses Bari’s isolation and quiet agony to depict the psychic trauma that settles into the lives of those who are displaced.
A mesmerizing odyssey through the beauty, suffering, and rage that flow from the irrepressible desire to live.