When someone suggested reading Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick for our February book club, I thought a lot of unpleasant things. I didn’t say anything out loud. Nope. As the fearless leader of the book club, I kept my mouth shut. Strange, but true. What was my problem? It’s non-fiction! My experience with non-fiction in book clubs is that they do not lead to good discussions.
I’m happy to report I was wrong. What? I can admit when I’m wrong. Not only was the book not some dry tome I had to slog through, but the discussion was lively. Some would say heated. Especially when the other book club members agreed I’d for sure die if we all went to North Korea. Mind you, not because I’m not a survivalist, but because I have a big mouth. I had to concede their point.
Anyway, what is the book all about?
~ Blurb ~
North Korea is Orwell’s 1984 made reality: it is the only country in the world not connected to the internet; Gone with the Wind is a dangerous, banned book; during political rallies, spies study your expression to check your sincerity. After the death of the country’s great leader Kim Il Sung in 1994, famine descended, and Nothing to Envy – winner of the 2010 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction – weaves together the stories of adversity and resilience of six residents of Chongin, North Korea’s third-largest city. From extensive interviews and with tenacious investigative work, Barbara Demick has recreated the concerns, culture and lifestyles of North Korean citizens in a gripping narrative, and vividly reconstructed the inner workings of this extraordinary and secretive country.
~ My thoughts ~
I expected this book to be boring. I forced myself to lug it in my carry-on for a cross-Atlantic flight, convinced the only way I’d read the darn thing would be if I was stuck in a plane – literally. I picked up the novel to read as I was eating dinner on the flight and I couldn’t put it down. Seriously, my work went forgotten as I dove into the lives of the six North Koreans who managed to escape to South Korea.
Demick has done what all non-fiction writers dream of – she has taken a tragic subject and made it fascinating. Although I was already familiar with much of the history surrounding the famines in North Korea, the individual stories brought the suffering of the Koreans to light. It is difficult to empathize when hundreds of thousands of individuals starve to death, but when you hear the story of one individual, you can’t help but sympathize with them.
The stories didn’t end when the individuals arrived in South Korea, however. Demick also discusses the difficulties each has with assimilating into modern society. This is a reality check for when the Koreas finally merge. (And they will. Eventually it will happen.)
I highly recommend this book. I dare you to not care about North Korea when you finish.