This immersive, expansive and moving story begins in a coastal town in early nineteenth-century Korea, shortly after the Japanese annexation of the country. Hoonie, the disabled son of a fisherman, is married to fifteen-year-old Yangjin, and together they raise their daughter Sunja while running a boarding house and keeping their heads just above water. Neither Hoonie nor Yangjin can read or write, but through gossip at the market and amongst the fisherman they hear of the horrors of the Japanese occupation as the world teeters towards war.
As a teenager, Sunja catches the eye of Hansu, a Yakuza – gangster – and quickly becomes pregnant by him. When she learns he has a wife and children in Japan, she refuses to have anything further to do with him. Yangjin, resigned to the abject shame this will bring upon their family, is at a loss. But salvation arrives in the form of Isak Baek, a travelling pastor on his way to Japan, who promises to marry Sunja and take her with him to Osaka to raise her baby.
“Sunja-ya, a woman’s life is endless work and suffering. There is suffering and then more suffering. It’s better to expect it, you know. You’re becoming a woman now, so you should be told this. For a woman, the man you marry will determine the quality of your life completely. A good man is a decent life, and a bad man is a cursed life—but no matter what, always expect suffering, and just keep working hard. No one will take care of a poor woman—just ourselves.”
Unfolding over the decades, this dazzling book charts the lives of Yangjin, Sunja and their descendants as Korean immigrants in Japanese townships, through and after the war. Lee’s themes are deft and vast and elegantly explored, suffused with historical detail that brings a culture and time in history that I knew very little about vividly to life.
“Living everyday in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage.”
Lee uplifts the voices of the voiceless; those whom history has ‘failed,’ and this is what makes the novel feel triumphant even as the characters fight against the indifference of fate and suffer the injustices of poverty, racism and war. There’s the startling resilience of Koreans who are considered perpetual outsiders – even as later generations are born in Japan, with Japanese as a first language, they are still prevented from taking professional jobs and driven into the criminal underworld as a way to survive. For Noa, Sunja’s son, his survival is predicated on crafting a new identity as a Japanese man with no ties to Korea. And despite all that is levelled against them, despite the assertion that the lot of a woman is to suffer endlessly, the incredible cast of women in this novel are the backbone of their families, hustling to make money through selling handmade kimchi at market stalls, caring tirelessly for disabled husbands, searching to the ends of the earth for missing sons.
There is huge emotional depth to this book, but the prose itself is restrained and deceptively simple. Easily one of my favourite books of the year; I adored it.