Pros:Information, style, tone, pace
The Bottom Line: I cannot recommend it highly enough. If you are curious about life in North Korea, start here.
Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea is an intimate (sometimes uncomfortably so) historical snapshot in the lives of six North Koreans (as well as those around them) from different walks of life who successfully defected to South Korea between 1998 and 2005.
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The title is a double-entendre. It comes from a propaganda song that says North Koreans “have nothing to envy in the world.” But from our point of view, the North Koreans have, exactly what the title says. It is with this sort of maturity and care, coupled with a novelistic style that Ms. Demick is able to tell the stories of members of one well-to-do family, one family on the bottom rung, a star scholar, a doctor, and what amounts to an orphan in a way that allows each a full expression of their experiences in North Korea without falling into the pity or prurient traps, despite every opportunity to do so.
Ms. Demick is a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times covering Korea and the book grew out of multiple interviews over the course of a couple of years. All of her subjects come from the same part of the country around the northeastern city of Chongjin. Her reasoning is that it is extremely difficult to verify claims of almost any kind coming out of North Korea, so focusing on one area, the people involved (though most did not know each other) would indirectly back up each other’s story. Ordinarily this sort of localization would be considered a failing, but precisely because of the information black hole that is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, it can only be considered a strength.
The book is told based first on themes, then chronology. Each chapter contains information from more than one person at a time as well as cultural information about North Korea in general and the Chongjin region specifically. This is a great narrative choice. Even when the theme and chronology cover the famine of the mid to late 1990s the way she shifts focus from one person to another and from one cultural aspect to another stops the story as a whole from descending into total bleakness. The one drawback to this is that readers unfamiliar with Korean names might at times get confused, especially since the two families in the story have exactly the same cast of characters: mother, father, four children (three girls and the youngest child is the boy). There were times I had to go back and re-read some of the passages because I had gotten the families mixed up. This should not be taken as a criticism of either the writer or the style, however.
Her choices in interviewees are tidy, but this is no insult. Leaving out the political class, she covers the gamut of classes and roles that the defector community allows (the only type I could find missing is someone who lived on a collective farm, since they are the people who, apart from actual prisoners, are least able to defect). Among her subjects are people who were true believers in the cult of Kim Jung-il even through the worst of the famine, people who had begun to suspect that they were being lied to and at least one that didn’t really have a strong opinion one way or another until after the worst of the famine made it impossible to be personally neutral.
Though I have nothing but praise for the book, what makes me recommend it highly is how she handles the defection stories and the defectors’ incomplete assimilation into Western culture. While North Korea has nothing to envy, the West is not free from its own abuses and inconsistencies. Seeing these through the eyes of people who have seen loved ones starve to death and who had to risk, at the very least, their lives to escape is something that will stick with me longer than the bleaker aspects of the story that a less adept writer might have chosen to focus on.
I have only one warning which will accompany just about anything involving North Korea. Famine, especially one that is manmade, is a difficult subject to discuss and never pleasant. What people eat to survive is unsettling and what people do to survive should leave the reader feeling morally ambiguous, which is also unsettling. That said, if you are at all curious about North Korea, use this as the starting point.
My other reviews concerning North Korea
The Orphan Master's Son
Escape from Camp 14