Headlines about North and South Korea have dominated the news recently, but what do Americans really know about the history of these countries? There may be some gaps in our collective knowledge, but a trio of novels steps into that void, beautifully illuminating Korea’s past in ways that inform our present.
Inspired by the true story of a late-19th-century court dancer, Shin’s novel explores themes of exoticism, assimilation and identity. After capturing the heart of a French diplomat, orphan-turned-court dancer Yi Jin ends up in Belle Epoque Paris at the behest of the emperor, who tasks her with building a diplomatic bridge between Korea and France. Far from the gilded cage of the Joseon court, Yi Jin finds a new kind of restriction when she realizes she “could not be free of the attention of strangers, whether they were from kindness or curiosity.” Even to her French husband, she’s a mere token, a prize.
The novel delves into major historical events, including 1884’s Gapsin Coup and the Imo rebellion in 1882, while the power struggle between China and Japan for influence over Korea looms in the background. By placing Korean history beside a Western narrative, Shin highlights the disparity between Europe and the more isolated Asian nation. At its core, “The Court Dancer” examines what countries lose in identity in exchange for technological advancement.
A family is torn apart then reunited years later in Kim’s second novel, which begins in 1948 as Najin and Calvin Cho travel to the United States in search of new opportunities with their daughter Miran, while leaving their other daughter, Inja, behind. What’s supposed to be a short separation turns into a long-term split after the Korean War breaks out.
Despite growing up in vastly different worlds — Inja in war-torn Seoul, where a banana is considered a luxury, and Miran with her strict upbringing punctuated by “The Ed Sullivan Show” and American junk food — the sisters both become outcasts in their own ways, with Miran enduring racial slurs and Inja getting teased for her “mother who wasn’t a mother.”
Kim infuses a coming-of-age story about being an outsider with the realities of the war, which forced many family separations, some of which still persist today.
Kim’s stunning debut spans from 1951 to 1968, beginning as 16-year-old Haemi and her family seek refuge from war in the southern port city of Busan. There she ends up in a love triangle, forced to choose between the boy she loves and his more upwardly mobile cousin. Ultimately she caves to societal expectations that dictate she put her family before her emotional needs.
Snippets of Korea’s complicated history following the war are artfully folded into the story, revisiting the student protest that forced Korea’s first president, Rhee Syngman, to resign and the rise of Park Chung-Hee , the military strongman whose reign over Korea ended with his assassination. Within all the political chaos is the greater question of how to honor the past while accepting the Western influences that will usher in future.
The novel is interested in something most others aren’t: The aftermath. It focuses both on what comes after war — as a new country struggles to delevop its identity — and what follows Haemi’s fateful decision, as the ramifications of her choice ripple out to affect everyone around her.
Nicole Y. Chung is an aide for Book World.