This remarkable debut novel chronicles the endurance of two young North Korean women as they flee their country and struggle to make a new life.
It's probably safe to say that what the average American knows about North Korean culture could fit on a postage stamp. This is by design, of course; the most certain thing about North Korea's government is how little it wants us to know. What we do know is that a regime so intent on control doesn't champion the individual rights of its people. The North Korean government exploits its citizens completely and absolutely, and Brandon W. Jones has taken this as a starting point for a first novel that seems more like the polished work of an experienced novelist.
Her book, "All Woman and Springtime" (Algonquin Books, 372 pages, $24.95), concerns Gi and Il-sun, two young women who are brought together in an orphanage.
Il-sun came from a relatively affluent background, but family tragedy results in her being thrown from what was a comfortable existence to struggle and uncertainty. She wears her bitterness on her sleeve, despite the danger of her anger being seen as disrespect toward authority. Gi is Il-sun's nickname for Gyong-ho, timid by comparison; she stutters her name when they meet, and the nickname sticks. Il-sun brings bravery to the relationship, while Gi's escape into the inner world of mathematics starts as a coping strategy and later proves to be a talent.
Jones' writing provides a sense of urgency -- we want these women to leave, to risk everything in trying to escape their country and find a new life. This sort of story only reaches deep inside a reader, though, when the writer discards easy answers or solutions. Il-sun finds her motivation in risk, and her rebellion against authority leads to a dangerous sexual relationship. Gi, seeing the silver lining of Il-sun's bravery and vibrance, follows suit, and they escape from servitude to the government only to find themselves deceived and sold into sexual slavery in South Korea.
You'd be right in thinking that this sounds like an emotionally challenging read. Jones provides some relief by using multiple narrators, although none of them shies away from the harsh realities that face them all.
Thankfully, the writing is empathetic; Jones is willing to go deep into the emotions and pain. His effort proves up to the challenge of vividly depicting the harsh, terrible circumstances and also believably gives hope that the individualist spark can sometimes carry us through to better things.
Matthew Tiffany is a writer and psychotherapist in Maine. condalmo.com