While reading this book, I had to keep reminding myself that it is not, in fact, 1984. The stories Demick tells are true. North Korea is a place that actually exists. These stories happened, are happening.
This is the story of North Korea as told through the lives of 6 ordinary but very different people, from the Korean War through 2010. The story is told masterfully, gliding between the details of the regime and the details of these people’s lives: there’s Mrs. Song, my personal favorite, a true believer and diligent, upper class housewife. There’s Dr. Kim, a dedicated doctor who keeps seeing patients even when she knows she can do nothing to save them in the famine of the 1990s. Mi-ran, a smart, pretty girl and her secret boyfriend Jun-sang, deeply in love but separated by class, distance, and a crumbling infrastructure. Gradually their country crumbles around them, they realize that the regime and its promises are lies, and they have to figure out what to do to survive. Eventually, they all defect (of course, or they wouldn’t be telling their stories to a reporter) and it’s fascinating how they each go about it, exhilarating when they make it out. And astounding to think that something as simple as a rice cooker could represent a revolution.
Demick is a wonderful writer, the kind who doesn’t do anything fancy–no remarkably clever quotes or witty turns of phrase–but when you’re talking about North Korea, the truth is memorable enough. Demick’s simple, newspaper reporter style (she was a reporter for the LA Times) allows you to lose yourself in the story. The pacing is excellent. The descriptions of prison camps, freezing winters, the 1990s famine and , really, just general conditions are almost laughably simple considering the extreme–and extremely absurd–environment being described. Here’s an example: “Doctors not only donate their own blood, but also small bits of skin to provide grafts for burn victims…Those living in warmer climates often grow cotton to make their own bandages. Doctors are all required to collect the herbs themselves.”
I mean, good lord.
This is a great book if you don’t know so much about North Korea–it’s very approachable. But even if you do know something about North Korea, the stories will hook you. I kept reading and reading, rooting for our 6 protagonists and hoping that their next chapter would go better (spoiler–it hardly ever gets better.) The sheer absurdity that North Korea exists in the age of international human rights, not to mention the Internet, simply boggles my mind. Reading about actual human lives makes the place a little less abstract. 5/5 stars for being absolutely readable, for giving North Korea a face and name and story, and because I couldn’t put it down.