Nothing to Envy, Barbara Demick

In Book reviews on May 27, 2011 at 3:19 am

Winner of 2010’s Samuel Johnson prize, this is an account of the lives of six North Korean’s who have, via various means, ended up living in South Korea. Demick has created an encapsulation of life, from various perspectives and walks of life, under what is surely the most brutally repressive regime on earth. A pair of lovers, an orphaned boy, a mother with unquestioning faith in the regime and her rebellious daughter are among the protagonists. I found myself drawn in further and further, until I was completely gripped by their stories. There are heroics and, always, the shameful selfishness that is required to live through a famine. As people start dying, gradually the mist of belief in the country’s greatness lifts (the title comes from a song taught in schools which claims North Koreans ‘have nothing to envy in the world’). As well as the misery suffered whilst in the country, Demick discusses the problems of resettling in South Korea, particularly when family, or even children, have been left behind in North Korea. It is reminiscent of the Soviet defectors from the USSR: one can never know what those left behind go on to suffer as a result of your leaving. Touching and excruciating in equal measure.

Fun fact: all North-Korean teachers must learn to play the accordian, and are examined in it before they qualify


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