It’s been awhile since I have been this riveted by a book. And this isn’t even a novel, but a memoir! But then, a jaded reader like me can often sense where the plot of a novel will go, but in real life, anything can happen.
Hyeonseo Lee was born in North Korea, and the first third of this book traces her parents’ love story and her childhood in the world’s most isolated country. It is not the misery memoir you might expect on reading “North Korea”: the author’s family, while without political power, has a relatively high social status due to her grandparents’ communist credentials, and her mother’s black-market trading means they never go hungry. Much of Lee’s childhood plays out in Hyesan, a city just across a shallow river from China, and at age 17 – for reasons best summarized as “she was 17” – she decides to cross the river, just for a few days, to see life on the other side. This is the beginning of an epic journey for Lee and her mother and brother, through China, Laos and finally South Korea.
I think of this book as an adventure story, even though the second 2/3 of the book span more than a decade, because it turns out there are few safe places for North Korean defectors. Lee spends years in China, where she could be deported home at any moment if her true identity is discovered (hence her use of several names). She ultimately learns that, compared to most defectors, her journey is relatively easy, but it seems harrowing to me – and the more so when, years later, she returns to bring her family out. This is a fast-paced book (especially after the first third), full of dialogue and immersion in its settings.
But it also feels like a very honest book. I would expect a North Korean defector with an English-language publisher to feel pressure to sensationalize her story of life in North Korea, and to portray escape from that country as unmitigated triumph. But the author’s and her family’s experiences are much more complex. While there’s plenty to dislike about North Korea, it’s a world whose rules they understand. On leaving, they lose home and family, and their nerve-wracking journey leads them to a foreign country where they are considered second-class citizens, struggling to make ends meet with menial jobs, since a North Korean education is worthless in South Korea. By the end of the book, the reader can understand why they all, at different times, want to go back. Lee also writes honestly about her feelings of guilt: she makes some ill-considered decisions, and at times hurts other people; but with her limited choices and little support, it’s hard to blame her. It isn’t all hardship, though. The family’s bonds are strong, and they forge ahead and find help in some unexpected places.
This isn’t a literary memoir and while the characters are well-defined, I don’t find them especially memorable. Nevertheless, I had a wonderful time reading this book, blowing through most of it in one day, during which I was more or less glued to its pages. It is exciting, eye-opening, immersive and a great read.