This novel begins in 1951 in a refugee village during the Korean War. Haemi is 16 and helps her mother take care of her little brother Hyunki, who struggles with breathing. Her father died laboring in the mines for Japan when Korea was under Japanese rule.
Haemi regularly sneaks out at night to get drunk with her best friend Kyunghwan. She and Kyunghwan have feelings for one another, but neither has the nerve to admit it to the other.
Kyunghwan has a rich cousin, Jisoo, 18, who is determined to marry Haemi and then enlist. Jisoo is contemptuous of Kyunghwan for not wanting to enlist, but Kyunghwan doesn’t see the point:
“I wanted to tell him that I remembered our years under Japanese rule. How we were perpetually hungry, how we weren’t even allowed to speak our own tongue. We had no power in this fight, either. We were pawns, tossed around by Japan, then the Soviets and the United States. I didn’t want to join their cause. And above all, I was too weak, untrained. I would be killed.”
Analogously, Kyunghwan, although he loves Haemi, feels he has nothing to offer her either, unlike Jisoo, who could support her.
The story moves forward in time and also alternates among a group of narrators. Haemi does marry Jisoo, although she loves Kyunghwan. She tries to love Jisoo instead, but can’t forget Kyunghwan. It becomes even worse for them when Jisoo starts to seek comfort elsewhere. Nevertheless, they have several children.
Haemi sees Kyunghwan again after eleven years, and in some ways nothing has changed. Both feel the same, yet constrained by the roles not only determined by convention but by their gender and social class.
Tragedy strikes often in the lives of all of these people, but instead of strengthening them, it seems only to make them more despondent, and apt to go looking for satisfaction in all the wrong places. There is no redemption, but only anger and frustration. Perhaps, this is a more realistic turn of events than more upbeat stories.
Evaluation: This is one unhappy group of people, and I didn’t come to like any of them. But the portrayal of Korean culture is excellent.
Published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2018