Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

Friday, April 1, 2011

Title: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
Author: Barbara Demick
Pages: 296
Genre: Non-Fiction (narrative)
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau (Random House)
Pub. Date: December 29, 2009 (hardcover); September 21, 2010 (paperback)

Wow! What an amazing book!! I don't know where my interest and fascination for North Korea has come from lately. It may be that I'm half-Korean (South) but I think it's more just that I'm horribly fascinated by the real-life dystopian society that North Korea is. It's so mind boggling to know that there is a part of our world that is so oppressed, so like what we can only read about in the most outlandish novels (or see at the movies) that we can't fathom there actually being any truth to it, that people in this world are actually forced to live in that way. A real life 1984 (which terrified me, by the way).

Despite being told in a narrative fashion, this book is actually non-fiction. But you would be surprised to realize how fictional it all seems and how many elements of a great story can be found in this book. I found it to be such a morally ambiguous dichotomy -- on the one hand, I was so enthralled in the stories of the people that I found myself thinking about the book when I wasn't reading it and itching to get back to it as soon as I could. But then I'd remember that these were real people I was reading about who truly had these experiences in their lives, and then I'd feel a sort of guilt for finding any level of "entertainment" in the reading. But in reality, I became so engaged in the people this book was about and their stories.

Demick spent years visiting the country and interviewing defectors -- those who have illegally escaped from North Korea. She told about the history of North Korea from the 50's, around the Korean War, to the present through the life stories of six North Korean defectors. The basis is told chronologically and we check in with each of these characters at different times as the time moves along. We're first introduced to Mi-Ran who depicts teen love in a society where public affection is unheard, much less teen love in itself. We meet "the true believer" Mrs. Song who is so ultimately dedicated to her country and its leader, Kim Il-Sung, and would never even fathom doing anything against her country because it is the best in the world. She never would have expected to have a daughter like Oak-Hee, a rebellious child with her own mind and her own thoughts about the government. We meet Dr. Kim who is an independent thinker but who owes her free medical education to the government. But also along with these characters and others, we learn how in their communist regime, they're made to go to work even when salaries aren't available. We learn about the rules they have to follow in daily life and about how they survived during the famine that could have easily been prevented had the country passed on the humanitarian aid provided by other countries. We read and see all this from a place of such privilege and freedom. The difference is absurd!

As I said earlier, the six defectors whose lives are followed are just that: defectors. So there was a suspense, of sorts, to learn what happened to lead each of these individuals (some, very patriotic) to leave their countries. And then the experiences and realizations they had once they did leave the country were both poignant and hopeful. Despite the differences in culture and understanding of the world, the citizens of North Korea are people just like us who share wants, desires, and plain human nature. This is a must read!!


Zibilee said...

Oh, you are tight, this does sound like a must-read! I know what you mean about finding yourself ashamed to be so entertained by a book that deals with real life tragedy and human suffering, but sometimes I think it's better that way because that way, you know the author is really doing their job in disseminating the information in a clear and interesting way. Great review, Jenny!

Bunny B said...

Great review! My friend told me about how awesome this book was last year and I totally forgot about it. I'm definitely writing it on my to buy list now. Thanks :)

Juju at Tales of said...

Sounds powerful. Wow. Great review.

Helen's Book Blog said...

I've heard such good things about this book and am pleased to see another great review. Thank you!

Jennifer said...

I think that you make some really great points in this post and you have definitely made me want to read this book. I think that so many Americans live in a bubble, largely ignorant of what happens in other parts of the world. I'm definitely guilty of that but I am trying my best to change that by reading more books like this. Thanks for the great review!

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