At the age of four, Kyung left Korea with his parents for a new life in the USA. Over thirty years on, he’s married to Gillian, the daughter of an Irish-American policeman, with a four-year-old son of his own. With an untenured position at the university, Kyung is heavily in debt, but could never bring himself to ask for assistance from his now wealthy parents who live in the same town. After a violent childhood – his father beating his mother and his mother beating him – Kyung can hardly bear to see them, but nor can he properly separate them to move away.
Life becomes more complicated when, after his parents and their cleaner are viciously attacked in their home, Kyung’s parents move in the young couple and their son. Jealous of the developing relationship between grandfather and grandson, while fearful of Gillian unwittingly causing offence, Kyung’s search for solace at the bottom of a liquor bottle can only make matters worse.
How to sleep with rats the size of rabbits, how to endure the slow crawl of lice. How drinking helped you live with unlivable fear. How you could wake up with frozen icicles in your hair, not knowing if one of the boys would be frozen dead, forever 14.
As the son of a government minister, Yongju has lived a sheltered life in North Korea’s modern capital, Pyongyang, until the day the Dear Leader shoots his father dead in the course of a highly orchestrated social event. Jagmi, has had to fend for herself since childhood, smuggling goods across the North Korean-Chinese border, and is now devoted to protecting her unborn child. Danny/Daehan is a Chinese-American teenager of Korean descent, precociously intelligent but struggling socially on account of his religiosity and emerging sexual identity. Necessity brings each of them to the region of China bordering on North Korea, where their paths converge in a struggle for survival. Hiding in a dark cave until rescued by missionaries, but it is their saviour more interested in converting them to Christianity than moving them to relative safety in South Korea?
Krys Lee convincingly evokes the twilight world of North Korean defectors, ever fearful of starvation, exploitation by the Chinese who despise them or repatriation to torture and imprisonment. My sympathies were spread a bit thinly across the three point of view characters – or it could have been, despite being caught in my own extended adolescence, the three young narrators were too much for this older reader – but their story is one that needs to be heard.