I do not typically read nonfiction* in my free time. I am all about stories, and I think of nonfiction as good for you but rather dry. Judging by this one, that’s a bad assumption.
[* Yes, I am counting this for my world fiction challenge. I make exceptions.]
Nothing to Envy was written by an American journalist who interviewed hundreds of North Korean defectors; six of their stories form the backbone of the book, woven together with big-picture background and factual information. The result is a fascinating page-turner, chronicling people’s lives in probably the most bizarre country on the planet. As the subtitle states, the six people--four women and two men--followed in the book are regular folks from the city of Chongjin, in the northern part of the country. They all have families, some of them have careers, but all six ultimately make the highly unusual decision to flee to South Korea; one of the many things that surprised me in this book was how few North Koreans defect, and how much trouble the defectors have adjusting to life elsewhere. The two women who were the most well-adjusted in North Korea are the ones who do best in their new lives too.
The book is full of fascinating stories of life in North Korea, from the depressing (a South Korean POW who learns to just not talk to anyone, even his own wife and kids, for fear of saying something wrong), to the surprisingly happy (a young couple who take advantage of the complete darkness at night to sneak out together), to the bizarre (a prisoner who bribes a woman to take news of her whereabouts to her family.... by removing her underwear and handing it over). It’s a heavy-hitting book, and I was worried that it would be full of starvation and sickness--which is harder for me to read about than violence--but while both are certainly present, they don’t overwhelm the book. The bright spot is that we know there’s hope for the six defectors, who at least survived to tell their stories.
The writing is not what I’d normally look for in a novel--the author’s background in journalism is clear--but for nonfiction, it’s excellent: informative and engaging, without drawing attention to itself. The facts and narratives are expertly woven together. Demick keeps herself and her opinions out of the book except where they’re actually helpful, and does a great job of bringing her subjects to life as individuals: not just victims of their birthplace, but real people with both flaws and strengths. North Korea is an astonishing, appalling place that the outside world knows little about, but this book brings it to life not just as a bundle of statistics and talk about nuclear weapons, but a real place inhabited by real people.
In fact, I can’t really come up with much to criticize about this book. Well, the title seems a little too.... obvious, until you find out that it comes from a patriotic North Korean song claiming that they have nothing to envy.
At any rate, I’ve already started recommending this book to people and expect to be doing so for some time. It is just that good.