Sunday 25 March 2018

Debut that is full of eastern promise

Fiction: How I Became A North Korean, Krys Lee, Faber, hdbk, 256 pages, €19

Korean author Krys Lee.
Korean author Krys Lee.
How I Became A North Korean, by Krys Lee

At the beginning of this novel of political disappearances and compulsory subterfuge, a North Korean called Yongju describes his mother and father dancing at a party in Pyongyang. Everyone wears "the same smiles, the same fur coats and Rolex watches engraved with the name of the Dear Leader, the Great General, the man with dozens of honorific titles".

Suddenly, "Dear Leader" produces a gun and shoots the narrator's father dead: "Dark liquid seeped from him, his scalp dampened against my eomeoni's (mother's) hands that were now in his hair. 'Won't someone help?' she cried."

It is an uncomfortable scene, but also redolent of the opening slaughter of a Hollywood action flick, or a detective novel. Is this the point - that such violence is both savage and mundane, and, as the opening to a narrative, almost a cliche?

Krys Lee is the author of an acclaimed collection of short stories, Drifting House. This, her first novel, is a dark and moving triptych, in which Lee relays the lives of three young North Koreans.

After his father is murdered, Yongju flees to the Tumen River on the Chinese border. He wanders alone through a dreamlike hinterland, in deep grief.

Jangmi is 16 and pregnant with the child of a powerful local man "who protected my growing smuggling business". She was eight when "famine changed everything". "Everyone who had followed the rules… died… the government devalued our money and made our savings worthless." All she can do is cross the Tumen River, too, and be sold into marriage with a Joseon-jok (a Korean living in China).

Then there's Danny, also 16, a Chinese-American of North Korean descent who lives with his father in California. Bullied at school, Danny becomes erratic, so his father sends the boy to visit his mother, who is a missionary in "a forgotten corner of China".

At first, Danny feels the "thrill of being out of my time line, in China, a body returning to the past". But he arrives at his mother's apartment to find the local deacon hiding in her wardrobe: "A man not my dad, but a man who had somehow become closer to my mom than my dad." In shock, Danny runs away, towards North Korea.

We follow the three through this "unfriendly land" as their narratives merge and their voices become interchangeable. Yongju hides in a cave: "The drip of water during rain, the scratchy music of the trees outside. A bed of stones and paper to keep the cave dry. Blankets, clothes from the city dump."

Jangmi's marriage collapses and she is cast out into the treacherous wilds. Danny is robbed and, when he finds Yongju's cave, invents a traumatic backstory. It's a jarring meta-element: Danny's suffering is partly feigned, while the others are in mortal danger.

Lee captures how subjects of totalitarian regimes are forced to doubt their own impressions of the world. Reality is tenuous and may at any moment be altered by an edict from above. Lee's characters fabricate lies, simply to survive.

Yongju explains: "I tried to form a coherent narrative of who I was, where I came from… (but) my speech circled back on itself as I wondered if this was how it had actually happened and, especially, how much to reveal, whether I should change dates and places to protect myself." This is a promising first novel, full of fervour and compassion.

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