Krys Lee, born in South Korea, raised in the United States and now teaching at Yonsei University in Seoul, writes beautifully about blasted lives and terrible events. In “How I Became a North Korean,” as in “Drifting House,” her debut story collection, the main characters are North Koreans trying to escape from a place where no one can be trusted, the walls have ears, and the Dear Leader’s portrait must be enshrined in a place of honor in every household. Not infrequently, a neighbor or co-worker disappears.

Unlike the stories, in which everyone remains severely damaged even when they succeed in getting out, in the novel all three main characters make it to freedom and achieve relative psychic health. I tell you this so that you’ll be able to get through the horrific trials they undergo.

In alternating chapters, we learn the history of three teenagers — Yongju, Daehan and Jangmi — as they try to escape. Yongju, who grew up in a privileged household in Pyongyang, watches his father being shot to death because he displayed insufficient enthusiasm for a whim of the Dear Leader. By paying smugglers, he, his mother and sister make their way to China, only to be stopped by an official, or pirate, who herds off all the women in the convoy by truck.

Jangmi has crossed over to an arranged marriage with a Chinese man, and Daehan was visiting his missionary mother in China. Until his father sent him there, he’d grown up as Danny, a high school kid in Redlands, Calif.

When he discovers that his mother is living with the minister from their California parish, he runs away into unknown territory, distraught, his Christian faith shaken. The plotting here is a bit much. It’s hard for me to believe that Daehan would go through so much physical hardship and emotional suffering alone, as a self-styled orphan, rather than contact either parent again.

Yongju becomes a feral outcast, living in woods and mountain dugouts with other orphans from his smuggled group. Daehan and Jangmi eventually make their way there, too. Jangmi had been kicked out of her home by her mother-in-law who, like so many Chinese, despised North Koreans.

The three are rescued — or is it that they’re taken prisoner? — by a fanatical Christian missionary named Kwon. He is more interested in indoctrinating them with the Bible than sending them to South Korea. He also forces Jangmi, who has been raped before, to have sex with him. Eventually, violence ensues and the kids are back on the road.

Krys Lee inhabits her protagonists in a precise, elegant style that is a consolation for all the misery. Yongju notes that “Twenty young men could have slept in his office. I was starting to measure space by the number of people it could hide.” Daehan observes of another orphan that “his happiness was more like a constant buzz of fear.” Yongju is struck by Jangmi’s eyes,” dull as lumps of coal, gazing out as if there was nothing in the world left to look at.”

 

Brigitte Frase is a critic in Minneapolis and a past winner of the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.

How I Became a North Korean
By: Krys Lee.
Publisher: Viking, 246 pages, $26.