Mateo's Reviews > Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick
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's review
Sep 24, 2010

really liked it

Nothing to Envy is the third book I've read recently on North Korea, and the most affecting. Guy Delisle's beautiful and haunting graphic novel Pyongyang was a revelation, but suffered from the author's outsider status, while Mike Kim's impassioned and informative Escaping North Korea was a victim of both clunky writing and the author's Christian polemics. (See my reviews.) Nothing to Envy works because it is exactly what its subtitle proclaims: the simple lives of ordinary North Koreans. And the simple lives of ordinary North Koreans couldn't be more horrific and pathetic.

Very simply, this book is as depressing and infuriating as any you'll read--more than 1984, because it's true, and because the North Koreans have thought of means of repression that even Orwell couldn't dream up. And yet it has the feel of a novel of intertwined lives, something so fantastic and unreal that only a novel seems to fit the form. (I was reminded at points of Ha Jin's Waiting.) And, curiously, it also felt strangely historical--even though it covers the last 20 years or so--perhaps because we associate this sort of repression and cruelty with newsreels and scratchy videos. It made me think of East Germany or Rumania or even (up to a point) Maoist China, where eventually things open up, freedom wins, the repressed get not only enough to eat and the right to speak and travel, but beautiful new Nikes and Hyundais and Dancing with the Stars. That's true enough for the refugees who made it out to tell their stories. It isn't true for 23 million people. Today. Now.

(One minor note: because the stories are told piecemeal, I had a hard time remembering who was who. Whose parents emigrated from Japan? Who was the schoolteacher? A short list of dramatis personae would help.)
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message 1: by Leigh (new)

Leigh Hancock Well, I've had about enough of sultans and goats and unpronouncible mountain passes. And the last Africa-based book I read is still giving me shivers, so it looks like pathetic, horrific stories from North Korea might be just the ticket. I only hope they don't do that weird thing where the first name goes last and the last name goes first. I hate that.

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