I have read quite a few books regarding North Korea, and naturally they are pretty much all about the same subject; defectors. I think I have read one or two books about people who have befriended the regime, but that is it. I did however want to get something new out of my literary trip to North Korea, and I found The Girl with Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee.
Why is this book different from all the other defector stories? Most of the stories I have read are adventurous and because of the situation in North Korea, the stories seem so unreal, unbelievable, and even though I know it is all true, it still feels strange to have a country like this on our planet. Hyeonseo’s story is different because she got away, and she went back to the border and got her family to defect as well.
The book is like a surreal thriller. Someone ups and leaves to another country and stays there as an illegal alien. She is not safe anywhere, and betrayal is normal. Bribes have to be paid left and right. Hyeonseo managed to do what she did because she knew Chinese (Mandarin) from before, and she worked hard to perfect it. Yet she had to be on the run at all times, always looking over her shoulder. Of course we know before we have even started the book that she makes it to South Korea.
Even though the reader knows that all ends well, there is so much more to the story. I feel like in the end Hyeonseo was extremely lucky. She had many things and people against her, but somehow she always found a way or a person who helped her out. Her family background and the way she was raised gave her the possibility to think for herself and aim for better, unlike the way it seems to go in North Korea in general.
At times, I felt like I was reading a thriller because the twists and turns happened so suddenly just like it does in fast-paced novels. As a reader, I enjoyed it, but to actually live through it would be heartbreaking and utterly sad. I would highly recommend this book to everyone! It gives many of us a much-needed perspective. Is it really worth it to complain so much about futile issues in our lives? I think Hyeonseo’s life would make a great film. I would definitely watch it!