Choi, in her debut novel, offers a sobering glimpse into life on both sides of the Korean Demilitarized Zone.
The author draws on her own experiences growing up during the Korean War in this fictionalized account. Choi, like the fictional Lee family, lived near Communist leader Kim Il-Sung’s birthplace in North Korea until her family fled south. The story opens in the Lees’ new home outside of Seoul, where Mr. Lee works as a successful factory manager and he and his wife raise their four children: lovely, serious Gina; active, funny Sonia; inquisitive Mia; and Hahn-kook, the beloved male baby. Much of the story is told from Mia’s perspective; in Incheon, she learns that her father was persecuted for being a communist, and in Seoul, she and her family face starvation and persecution as suspected “Reds.” Little by little, the family breaks apart, first when their father disappears, then when Gina and Sonia defect to the north to live under communism. Mia later chooses to enter an orphanage, disgusted that her mother would rather provide for Hahn-kook’s education instead of Mia’s. Eventually, Mia moves to the United States, becomes a well-respected pediatrician and later takes a shocking voyage back to North Korea to reunite with her sisters. She finds that Gina has risen through the Communist Party ranks with her husband, yet they find themselves disillusioned with the regime, and Sonia’s crushing poverty breaks Mia’s heart. The story doesn’t unfold straightforwardly, instead alternating between Mia as an 11-year-old, Mia as a middle-aged woman, Gina in 1950s North Korea and more recent events. The narrative shifts, especially between Mia’s first-person accounts and the oddly interspersed third-person chapters, distract from Choi’s engaging portraits of midcentury North and South Korea. The novel’s conclusion resorts to unrealistic coincidences in order to provide an uplifting ending, but after all the suffering experienced by the Lees, readers may welcome a bit of fairy-tale happiness.
An insightful, moving tale of one family’s struggle to survive the Korean War and its aftermath.