Tag Archives: North Korea

The Kinship of Secrets by Eugenia Kim

Every Sunday in the congregation at my church there is a immigrant from Iran who prays at the communion rail longing to reunite with her son who was left behind when she emigrated to the United States. Through hard work, perseverance, and a bit of luck she was able to sponsor the arrival of one of her sons, but her eldest is stuck overseas due to the current ban on refugees from certain middle eastern countries. Somehow he has made his way to Turkey and her heart is at high alert, hoping that his return to her loving arms is not just a pipe dream. Every time I see her, I pray that her dearest wish comes true.

So when I began to read The Kinship of Secrets by Eugenia Kim, I could vicariously relate to the premise. A husband, wife and young child have left Korea for the United States, not realizing that a Civil War was imminent or that the conflict between the North and South would wreck havoc with their lives. It seems that their youngest daughter was left behind with family members and now there is no way they can reunite despite their best efforts. The tale is basically told from three points of view, Inja who finds herself quickly migrating with her relatives to South Korea away from the rebels who are brutalizing their neighborhood in the North, her sister Miran who is becoming Americanized in her new homeland, and Najin their mother who is heartbroken that she cannot find a way to reconcile her family so instead sends frequent care packages to show how much she loves her displaced child. Even though they eventually once again become a family, the ten plus years of separation have repercussions that are not easily resolved, especially when there are secrets hanging over their heads.

A sequel to the novel The Calligrapher’s Daughter, much of this story is based on the author’s experiences as one of the children who came with her parents to the United States for an extended visit in 1948 only to be forced to stay put when the Korean War broke out in 1950, leaving her baby sister to survive the upheaval with the help of her grandmother back in their homeland. The friction portrayed between the siblings is based on reality, since it was not until Eugenia connected with her roots that she began to understand the dynamics which had influenced both their lives.

A great idea, despite the uneven pacing and plot development, made worthwhile if only as an exploration of an honorable people caught in an untenable situation. This is an approachable story dealing with a country which is very much in the news as our President plans to meet once again with Kim Yon Un to continue a discourse once again encouraging a ban on the development of nuclear weapons so that the 60+ year Korean conflict might one day be history.

Three and a half stars and a thank you to Edelweiss and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

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Incendiaries: A Novel by R. O. Kwon

When I was in college, my boyfriend, for some reason, had to miss one of his upper level advanced mathematics courses and asked me to tape the class and copy down the notes written on the chalkboard. (Obviously this was quite a few years ago). The teacher was Asian with a stilted accent, but even if he had been totally fluent in English, my year of Introductory Calculus was not enough background for me to make heads or tails of the subject matter which the professor was attempting to impart, so I just nodded and copied and pretended that I had an inkling of the topic under discussion, flipping the tape over as appropriate.

This sense of confusion is similar to my experience in reading Incendiaries: A Novel by R. O. Kwon. Flitting from character to character giving little to no reference point with statements which only at times resemble sentences, flipping back and forth with tenses and pronouns so I wasn’t sure who was speaking and when the event occurred, I waded through this book (which was fortunately a quick read) until I finally got the gist of what was happening and was able to confirm my suspicions by going back to the beginning and skimming the chapters after my first go around with the text.

Not a traditional narrative, this book is about a group of students attending Edwards College in Noxhurst, a city somewhere in New York State (I think). There are side trips to New York City with a visit to other locations in the Northeast, although the main characters are originally from California and think nothing about bopping home. Ultimately the story is about a cult started by John Liel which entraps Phoebe Lin and almost ensnares her boyfriend, Will Kendall. The main characters all have some Korean blood and have experienced a past which makes them vulnerable to brainwashing, taking advantage of their questions concerning faith and Christianity. The Pro Life contingent is also a theme which reoccurs throughout the book.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to be sympathetic to any of these protagonists who are all self absorbed, with personality flaws that makes them largely unlikeable. Their college education is alluded to, but for the majority is more a setting than an activity. Bars and other gathering places abound with drinking, drugs, and sex which seem to be the primary activities mixed in with religious allusions. It’s a very jaded view of the college scene.

While the majority of the narrative is disjointed, there is a brief glimpse of a book which I could have liked – the section describing Will’s job as a waiter at an upscale restaurant and the difficulty he had with one of the patrons. Unfortunately, this is a mean spirited episode with more than a touch of misogyny, but at least it was readable.

So, if you like a challenge and are in the mood for a negative plot line, go for it. I, for one, plan to find a book which will make me laugh so as to remove the bitter taste which is currently lingering, just as I decided to major in English and not in Math.

Two and a half stars and a thank you to Edelweiss for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on Goodreads.