Trigger warning: the following book and book review involves crime, murder, rape, and abuse.
I love reading about different cultures, so when I was starting my kindle collection, I downloaded this for free, thinking it sounded interesting. As I read, I found myself taking little side trips to the world wide web to educate myself on some unfamiliar Korean customs, such as binyeo (ornate hair pins), hanboks (traditional formal dresses), and their zodiac animals (I’m a Goat!)
Anna is a young Korean woman who was adopted by her American parents at birth. After the loss of her adoptive mother, she decides to look into her past and find her birth mother. With her father’s support and acceptance, they fly to Korean to meet Anna’s bio-mom, only to learn that she passed away during childbirth. Just when Anna thought her search hit an end, a woman passes her a mysterious message- a fine, fancy hair comb and an address to meet a woman who seems to have some answers about Anna’s past. Unsure but intrigued, and again with her father’s blessing, she decides to pay the woman a visit.
Over many cups of bori cha, the woman, Hong Jae-hee, reveals her connection to Anna, and explains the meaning behind the elaborate comb. It’s a gruesome tale of heartache and loss that started with World War II and the Japanese occupation in which the woman, then a girl of fourteen, was ordered from her home and sent to be a comfort woman in China during the war. After losing her innocence, her will to live, and her family, the woman escapes back to her home, only to find out there is nothing left for her there. Desperate to leave her past behind her, she seeks refuge with a man named Jin-mo, travels to Pyongyang, and aids the Korean government as the North and South attempt to agree on how to run their country as one. When the two halves of Korean refuse to yield to each other, Jae-hee knows she is no longer safe staying in North Korea. Making another run for her life, she crosses the border to South Korea- pregnant, malnourished, and destitute. Restarting her life again, her multi-lingual abilities give her an opportunity to support herself and child.
Andrew mesmerized me with Jae-hee’s story, and gave me so much more insight on Korean culture and history. In my school days, the Korean War wasn’t covered in much detail, so it was always a vague concept to me. Reading about what it was like from a citizen stand point gave me so much more perspective. Although the reasoning behind Jae-hee’s travel is devastating and difficult in process, I liked that it made me pull out a map and get familiar with Korean geography. I found it extremely interesting that when you try to google directions from North to South Korea, the routes aren’t available. So, I had to do a lot of estimating in the travel time from Sinuiju to Dongfeng, to Pyongyang and Seoul.
I also have to say, I wept during this novel, multiple times. What Jae-hee experienced is terrifying and tragic, and her stories represent many others like hers. The Korean comfort women were raped, abused, murdered, and there has been no formal, sincere apology for it by the Japanese.
“Now the Koreans and Japanese were allied, and we were sweeping aside the atrocities of their brutal occupation. No one wanted to hear about our suffering. I knew why. Just like me, Koreans did not want to admit what the Japanese has done to us. We were ashamed.”
There are still women who suffered and survived this time period, who protest day in and out, only demanding their abusers to swallow their pride and apologize so that these women and their families find peace. My heart goes out to them.
Though this novel was published in 2008, I think it is still an absolute must read- especially because women today still struggle to make their voices heard. If you have a chance to pick it up, do. It will break your heart, but it will be so worth it.