Sweeping tale of people caught up in history

Review: Vivien Horler
Beasts of a Little Land, by Juhea Kim (Oneworld)
Against the dispiriting news of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Wikipedia entry on the Korean War of 1950-1953 makes chilling reading.

The countries of Korea, both North and South, are often in the news, the North usually for all the wrong reasons, but I know very little about them. However I’ve learned a bit reading this beautifully written but somewhat slow novel set in the country between 1917, just 10 years after the Japanese occupation, and 1965.

When Japan was defeated in World War 2, the Soviet Union and the United States divided the country into two occupation zones along the 38th parallel, with the zones eventually becoming the countries of North and South Korea.
In 1950 the (North) Korean Peoples Army invaded South Korea, with support from the Soviet Union, while UN and US forces (and soldiers from other Western allies) supported South Korean troops.

Wikipedia says the war saw about three million deaths, and a larger proportion of civilian deaths than in World War 2. It also saw the destruction of virtually all Korea’s major cities.

How will the Ukraine crisis pan out? Impossible to know for now, but the Korean conflict didn’t work out so well for the people of North Korea.
In fact this war is barely mentioned in Beasts of a Little Land, although the effects are described, with a ruined Seoul, cholera outbreaks and general hardship and hunger.

At the centre of the novel are Jade, sold by her family to Miss Silver’s courtesan school in cosmopolitan Pyongyang, and an orphan boy called JungHo, who wants to make something of himself and who finds a mentor in a man fighting for Korea’s liberation from Japan.

Also central to the story are a couple of senior Japanese soldiers, one of whom is relatively decent, and one of whom is a vicious thug. One night he goes to the courtesan school and rapes one of the girls, leaving her pregnant. Silver resolves to send three of the girls, including Jade, to Seoul, to her cousin Dani’s establishment.

There Jade acquires performing skills, and becomes an accomplished actress, admired far and wide. But she remains fond of JungHo, whom she met as a child, and falls in love with a rickshaw driver whose humble occupation belies his family’s illustrious rank.

The Beast of a Little Land is something of a saga and describes how the characters interact and are borne up and buffeted by the history of the first half of the 20th century.

Author Juhea Kim was born in South Korea and moved to the US when she was nine. She heard the stories of her country as a child, but learnt in the US how to write lyrical English. Her descriptions of landscapes and atmosphere are like paintings.

Here’s one paragraph with Jade: “One night I found it hard to sleep. It was the sound of waves crashing. As soon as the sky began to lighten, I went for a walk. The sun was just below the sea and the world was awash in orange and pink. My feet led me to the cliff, and standing there amid the fluttering new grass was a pair of chestnut-coloured wild horses. They stared at me for a long time…”

A beautiful book, carrying with it a timely reminder of the death, destruction and pain wrought by war and revolution.



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