A collection of short stories, this book takes a look at Korea in the last 70 years, by exploring the impact of events like the Korean War and its aftermath, the dictatorship of Park Chung-hee, the famine in North Korea, or the IMF Crisis. Lee does this by examining the plight of ordinary people whose lives are inescapably governed by circumstances mostly out of their control.
Some of the stories are pretty heavy stuff in that the protagonists find themselves in horrific situations where their only choice is no choice, and where morals are not applicable or relevant anymore. In the titular story, for instance, three young siblings try to escape from North Korea to China, and the lives they have led up to this point, and the experiences they have on their flight, all while being followed by the ghosts of the dead, are difficult to digest. Similar in effect is another story, in which a salaryman in South Korea loses his job during the IMF Crisis and descends from the life of a family father to one of homelessness and a desperate struggle for survival although he has nothing left to live for.
Others are less gut-wrenching but tragic nonetheless, for example, a woman confronting her husband’s mistress, a father sending money to his family overseas while wrestling with his own desires, or an abandoned wife following her estranged husband to the US to find the daughter he took with him, and having to admit the true nature of their relationship to herself. All of these are primarily human stories but also unique to Korea due to being firmly rooted in the history and culture, which is very educational for those interested in it, as it is all there, sometimes displayed openly, and sometimes only detectable between the lines.
These are stories about a land on which the past weighs heavily, and about its people who have suffered and still suffer from the traumata that have been inflicted on them. No matter how terrible the characters act, how heinous their deeds, and how egregious the secrets they try to conceal are, I did not find it in me to judge them. When one protagonist tries to reassure himself that he is still a human being, no matter what he has become and what he has done, he has already condemned himself to a life of absolute misery. Krys Lee is an unflinching writer, and as a reader of her book, you have to be unflinching, too.