Glimpses of a hidden world from the award-winning author of Drifting House (2012).
Lee’s debut novel begins at a party in Pyongyang. Government officials and celebrities show off Rolex watches and fur coats. They eat fish imported from Tokyo, they toast their Dear Leader with Chivas Regal, and they watch girls in hot pants dance to forbidden American pop. It’s a surreal display of wealth and privilege overshadowed by terror. These elites are protected from the famine and despair that plague their country, but they're still subject to the whims of a mercurial, all-powerful dictator. This scene is narrated by a young man, Yongju, and it culminates in the assassination of his father. This fall from grace leads to an escape into China, and that’s where he meets the novel’s other narrators. Danny is Korean by heritage, Chinese by birth, and a permanent resident of the United States. While visiting his Christian missionary mother back in China, he runs away, is robbed of his passport, and joins a group of other young outcasts in order to survive. Jangmi is a young North Korean woman who smuggles herself across the border to marry a Chinese man; she’s forced to flee her new home when this man realizes she’s pregnant with someone else's child. The best parts of this book are in its beginning. The banquet where Yongju’s father is assassinated, for instance, is quite particular in its weirdness and horror. Jangmi’s reaction to the bounty she finds in China is both an appreciation and a critique of consumerism. And the ways in which all these characters must confront prejudice are interesting. All too soon, though, their stories converge into a tale of survival that is both familiar and flat. Lee barely explores the contrast between Yongju’s sheltered upbringing and the depredations he endures in China. Hunger and homelessness are also surprisingly easy for Danny, a kid from the suburbs of southern California. Only Jangmi’s travails are believable and compelling.
Promising start; disappointing finish.