Author: Maija Rhee Devine

Publisher: Seoul Selection USA

ISBN: 978-1-62412-003-9


This fascinating picture of traditional Korean life begins in Seoul in June 1949. The 40-year Japanese occupation ended with WWII, but the country has been divided in two, and there are Communist guerrillas in the hills and the neighbors are digging bomb shelters under their floorboads. Eum-chun and her husband, Gui-yong, have been married for 15 years and are deeply, and passionately, in love. Eum-chun has been unable to bear a child and they have adopted a daughter, Mi-na, who is five years old when the book opens. At that time in that place, however, a daughter wasn’t good enough; Gui-yong needs a son (without one, his soul cannot get into heaven) and he brings a mistress, Soo-yang, into the house to bear one.

Maija Rhee Devine tells this family’s story, which stretches from 1949 to 2005, in chapters that shift from the point of view of these four main characters. We see that Gui-yong, although he adores Eum-chun, feels he has no choice. The two women, Eum-chun and Soo-yang, have less choice, although both are ashamed and deeply angry that they have to share a man. Mi-na is made guilty because she does not have a penis and because of her,"Little Mother,"  Soo-yang comes into her house and makes her mother terribly ill.

In June 1950, of course, North Korea invades and the warfare within the household is reflected in the combat outside. (There’s a powerful scene in which North Korean soldiers search the house looking for food and contraband, and Mi-na discovers for the first time that her mother can deliberately tell a lie.) The war divides the family the way politics had divided the peninsula, and we watch the characters trying to find one another and to survive—Soo-yang now with a baby boy, Em-chun and Mi-na scrambling for food.

The novel “fills a gap in English-language fiction by painting an authentic portrait of Korea,” writes Kongdan Oh of the Brookings Institution. “The story’s characters are ordinary Koreans of their time—people with strong emotions, a commitment to family respect for tradition, and, less laudably, discriminatory attitudes toward. The dialogue is lively and crisp and the descriptions of daily life evoke the very sights, sounds, and smells of traditional Korea.” I found the book a moving and persuasive window into lives and times and places I knew very little about. Very worth reading.


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