This debut novel gives readers a rare glimpse into both historical and modern North Korea through the eyes of Jia, whose life begins with her mother’s death; the publisher is calling it “the first novel about present-day North Korea to be published in English.”
Kim, who frequently writes on Asian issues, crafts an unsettling account of a North Korean woman caught up in events she neither controls nor understands. As a small child, Jia leaves the hard-scrabble mountain home of her fraternal grandparents against her will and travels to the city of Pyongyang to join her other grandparents. Jia, whose long limbs serve as a constant point of comparison with her mother—a beautiful dancer married to a rebellious teacher—is rejected by her mother’s father. Consigned to an orphanage, she matures into a natural dancer, leaving the institution only when a troupe chooses her to perform at an important celebration. Trained in the art of traditional Korean song and dance, Jia settles into a satisfying, if not very exciting, existence, but when the leadership of her country changes, so does everything else. No stranger to hardship and with little left to lose, she struggles with cruelty, loneliness and hunger before making a desperate decision. Like Jia, the author also struggles through this story, populating it with characters who never seem to resolve their issues. They pop up and disappear like literary whack-a-moles. Family, friends, teachers, a suitor and a young, injured boy all make appearances, but appear only as convenient pegs upon which to hang the plot. Hampered by a persistently passive voice, the action is contrived, and the novel’s resolution unsatisfying as a series of events converge to bring the story to a halt, leaving behind lots of loose ends. In need of better editing and character development, the book fails to generate reader empathy.
Reads more like an unedited first draft.