Description from Goodreads: Before she met Il-sun in an orphanage, Gi was a hollow husk of a girl, broken from growing up in one of North Korea’s forced-labour camps. A mathematical genius, she has learned to cope with pain by retreating into a realm of numbers and calculations, an escape from both the past and present. Gi becomes enamored by the brash and radiant Il-sun, a friend she describes as “all woman and springtime.” But Il-sun’s pursuit of a better life imperils both girls when her suitor spirits them across the Demilitarized Zone and sells them as sex workers, first in South Korea and then in the United States.
This spellbinding debut, reminiscent of Memoirs of a Geisha, depicts- with chilling accuracy-life behind North Korea’s iron curtain. But for Gi and Il-sun, forced into the underworld of human trafficking, their captivity outside North Korea is far crueler than the tight control of their “Dear Leader.” Tenderhearted Gi, just on the verge of womanhool, is consigned to a fate that threatens not only her body but her mind. How she and Il-sun endure, how they find a path to healing, is what drives this absorbing and exquisite novel-from an exciting young Algonquin discovery-to its perfectly imagined conclusion.
I’d never read a book based in North Korea before. To be honest, most of what I know comes from the media and the internet, and I think there are actually few pieces of literature out there that focus on the people and what their lives are like. Aside from the funny memes on Tumblr, do we really know what they think? How they feel? I’m not so sure. In my research during this book (because let’s be honest, I google like the wind, especially when it’s a topic I know little about) I found tons of information on the country itself and its weird policies and traditions, but nothing about the actual residents, and I think that’s because we have very little access to them. They are cut off from the world, after all. So this book was refreshing in that sense.
I knew it would be depressing, bleak, and heartbreaking. And it was. But I was surprised by my lack of connection to the characters. I expected to feel a lot for these women and everything they were going through, and I finally did towards the end, but up until that point, I cared very little. I’m not sure why that was because the book was really upsetting and graphic, but I think it had to do with the writing style that seemed to grow increasingly detached as the book went on, and this was not a deliberate style thing as it did not match up with the characters’ actions.
Another thing that frustrated me to no end were the outrageous amount of POVs. Every time a new character was introduced, we got a new POV. No, seriously. I think there were like three characters over the entire span of the book that did not have their own POV. And then the girls would move to a different place, and the characters that did not go along? Well we never heard from them again. So not only were there about ten different perspectives in this book, but some disappeared and never came back. I’ve never seen anything like this before and I didn’t like it. It was very confusing, distracting, and kept me from getting attached to the characters, and to be completely honest, most of the voices sounded the same. Some POVs had only one or two sections, and then no more. I wish we had spent more time with the three main women, and that the author had chosen to focus his narrative on them so I could have gotten to know them better. What makes or breaks a book for me is the connection I feel to the characters. It’s okay if I hate a character, but I must care one way or another or else you’ve lost me.
I cried at the end though, which honestly surprised me after all the complaining I had done in my head. But I think it’s because I thought about how that would translate to real life and I connected it to my grandfather, and bam. TEARS. The things these women went through. So atrocious, and not one iota of happiness in their lives. Whoever wrote on the cover that this book was uplifting needs their eyes checked. Completely not true. There is hope at the end, but the book ends so abruptly, and I never got a chance to really process what happened. And one main character disappeared to never be heard from again and I wanted to know what happened to her. I know all questions can’t be answered, but I was left feeling unsatisfied.
Despite all my grievances with this book, I really did enjoy it. I hardly put it down and I finished it in a couple of days which is a record for me. But I am not sure if it has to do with the fact that I gobble up anything Asian fiction, or because it was actually good. Because honestly, the technical issues with this one kept me from being able to rate it above 3 stars. I really wanted to, but in the end, it needed some work, and the editor needed to fix the POV situation. Still, I think it is worth reading if you have an interest in North Korea, as there are not very many of these types of books out there.