Just as North Korea’s presence in news headlines has proliferated of late – thanks to the installation of the third-generation round-faced despot; nuclear tests; failed missiles; blatant threats – book shelves, too, have seen an increase in North Korea-themed titles, predominantly written by non-Korean authors.
In the non-fiction section, if Guy Delisle’s 2005 graphic memoir, Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, was entertainingly surreal, then Blaine Harden’s Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, which debuted last month, proved to be the most inhumanely devastating. Barbara Demick’s lauded 2010 National Book Award nonfiction finalist, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, offered something in between uncomfortably comic and unrelenting shockfest.
In fiction, if Jeff Talarigo’s 2008 The Ginseng Hunter was the most luminous about tortured North Korean lives, then Adam Johnson’s stupendous recent bestseller The Orphan Master’s Son was surely the most harrowing. Somewhere within that horror spectrum emerges the latest North Korea-focused title, All Woman and Springtime, by Brandon W. Jones, a debut novel out this month.
In a North Korean orphanage, two teenage girls become unlikely friends. Withdrawn Gyung-ho (named after a boy because her parents so wanted a son) is her family’s only survivor of prison camp. Irreverent Il-Sun, who would have had a privileged life had her mother not died, is for Gyung-ho the quintessential “all woman and springtime, the embodiment of feminine beauty.”
Under the portraits of Great Leader Kim Il-sung and his son Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, the girls toil as trouser seamstresses. In the book’s opening paragraph, Gyung-ho intently watches the “paradox of sewing, that such brutality could bind two things together.” That “methodic violence” Gyung-ho observes will play out through almost 400 pages, leaving such desolation that even the deus ex machina-ending – in equal measures longed-for and implausible – will provide little relief.
Il-Sun’s rebellious need to escape the daily drudgery of the orphanage and factory lands her into the arms of a less-than-honorable young man. She’s forced to flee – with Gyung-ho literally in tow – setting in motion a tortuous odyssey of sexual slavery first in Seoul, then in Seattle, Washington. Before they cross the DMZ, the two become three, joined by brash young Cho, already an experienced “flower-selling girl” – a prostitute – at 19. Before they cross the Pacific, they will add another when brave Jasmine, already trapped for five years in the heinous business, is ordered to indoctrinate the new girls into their dead-end future.
Amidst constant debasement, each relies on scant personal resources to survive – Gyung-ho, detachment; Il-Sun, vanity; Cho, experience; Jasmine, desperation.
As a story, “All Woman and Springtime” is unfortunately driven by predictable extremes: All women are victims and (with the exception of three minor characters) all men are victimizers. Whether in North Korea, South Korea, or the United States, sex is the universal weapon that keeps women and men viciously polarized.
As a writer, Jones’s lucid prose provides brief reprieves from the constant brutality – he can certainly craft elegant, quote-worthy sentences: “This path of survival, and that path of happiness, did not cross,” or “There was never any plan for the future, only a plan to live until the end of the day,” and “The enemy, she decided, was not the communist or the imperialist, but the lack of understanding between them.” Regrettably, Jones occasionally falls into clichéd romance-speak with “She was a girl with a beating heart who had fully capitulated to some unseen suffering, but whose essence still throbbed beneath the surface,” or irregular 21st-century American teenage vernacular with “I’m just saying.” Perhaps a result of lost-in-translation moments, he shortens Gyong-ho’s name to “Gi” (stuttered, the sound would be a single-syllabic repetition of ‘gyuh, gyuh, gyuh’) and awkwardly uses “teacup” as a term of endearment (in Korean, ‘chajan’ just doesn’t work like ‘sweetie,’ or even ‘cookie’).
In early publicity materials – for better or for worse – All Woman and Springtime is being compared to Memoirs of a Geisha, the exoticized bestseller for which Arthur Golden and his publisher settled out of court after being sued for breach of contract and character defamation by Mineko Iwasaki whose real-life story Golden (mis)portrayed. Readers similar to those who bought Memoirs of a Geisha might also make All Woman and Springtime a bestselling page-turner, although to read of one ghastly violation after another is a dark, draining experience.
Perhaps the best – only? – way to experience this novel can be be found in the words of one of its unfortunate characters: “… that being a witness, she was involved, and being involved, she had a responsibility to act.”