Belonging matters in South Korea towards the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, so dual-heritage Mia, with an absent English mother and mute and severely disabled Korean father, is never going to fit in. Bullied at school and, at thirty, still resented by her stepmother for whom Mia’s green eyes and pale skin are a constant reminder of her husband’s transgressions. With a lifetime of unhappiness, Mia has idolised the English, ever grateful for her job as a translator at the British Embassy, and particularly in awe of her boss. But Thomas is not as admirable as he seems. His career and marriage already at risk through his alcohol addiction, complications abound when he becomes both emotionally and strategically entangled with Mia, putting them both in jeopardy.
Caught between a romance and a political thriller, The Defections seems to lose its way in an overblown plot towards the end. But I enjoyed it for its portrayal of the nuances of identity and outsidership and for the mutual misunderstandings that arise when one language fails to map neatly onto another. With my scant knowledge of South Korea stemming mostly from a friend’s account of her sojourn there for her son’s wedding, and of the North from my reading of The Orphan Master’s Son, I was interested in what Hyun-min had to say about the defector’s experience (p246-7):
Naïvely, I hadn’t bargained for the rampant anti-communism in the capitalist South, so enjoyed discovering the echo of Mrs Engels in the contrast between the down-to-earth pragmatism of Mia’s stepmother and her husband’s intellectualism during the dictatorship (p185-7):
Once it had been a point of pride. She was the wife of a professor. A revolutionary. She had enjoyed the prestige of it after all the lonely years she had spent working in a factory. It was the kind of rags-to-riches tale that people only saw in the movies … Then Jun-su had been fired from the university lecturing against the economic measures proposed by the President.
Every day he spoke of getting a job in a factory … [but his] job never materialised … Some nights his colleagues from the university would be there and Kyung-ha had served plates of food to them, too tired to argue … Those intellectuals knew nothing of what it meant to sit in front of a sewing machine, stitching sleeves onto shirts. Jun-su’s colleagues praised her calloused, ruptured fingers, while they winced over their paper cuts from turning over the pages of their textbooks.
Hannah Michell’s debut novel paints a complex picture of a little-known (if only to me) country. Thanks to Quercus books for my review copy.