This was an ALC offering from Libro.fm a few months ago that intrigued me, so I grabbed it. Then I requested the physical copy from my library (I do like to have both on hand while reading, if possible), but between the delays in the library getting our copy (these printing/shipping delays affect libraries too, y’all) and the couple people who were on the waitlist for it before me, I honestly forgot about it until I got the notification that it was ready for pickup. A pleasant surprise that I rearranged my TBR list to get to. (I am a mood reader, but also have a weird thing about library books: once they’re on the holds-shelf for me/I have checked them out, I have a complex where I need to read them because if I return a book unread, I never try it again. I’m not sure if this is a mental thing or just coincidence, but it is a very consistent reality for me…thus, the TBR re-arrange.)
Beasts of a Little Land by Juhea Kim
“Now that I’m older I know that life is not about what keeps you safe, but what you keep safe, and that’s what matters the most.”
Spanning the decades from 1917 to 1965, Beasts of a Little Land follows two primary characters through this tumultuous recent history in Korea. Jade is a young girl sold by her impoverished family to a courtesan school, an introduction to a life that takes her from her rural town to the big city of Seoul. At the same time, a young boy named JungHo also finds his way to Seoul, after his father’s death. After a chance meeting, these two weave in and out of each other’s lives over the next half-century, connected by the deep thread of childhood friendship, as they forge their separate paths: Jade as a famous performer and JungHo a leader in the fight for Korea’s revolution for independence.
I am only intermittently into historical fiction, but I have to say that this one was really great. I loved the way that we were able to get glimpses of so many perspectives and styles of life through Jade and JungHo’s eyes and the variety of connections they had, thanks both to chance and to the fluid, between-the-lines sort of lives they each lead. This was also the perfect literary device through which to watch this conflicted period of Korean history unfold and get, in the literary context, of course, a more full, cross-cutting portrait of the day-to-day of human lives throughout, from the politically and financially favored to the margins of society (those without family prestige or money and those who make a living through less “savory” means, like the gangsters and courtesans). I have to say, I wish it had all stayed from the same written perspective, consistently all the way through; there was a single chapter from JungHo’s voice and having that just once felt weird and a bit jarring (I would have preferred to not have it at all or to have more of them). Anyways, I also really appreciated the way the romances, or lack thereof, played out. Based on the way the description for the book was written, I was expecting a sort of star-crossed couple situation with Jade and JungHo, which is not at all what I got. I don’t want to give any specifics, to avoid spoilers, but it was an incredibly refreshing relationship to read about, if deeply tragic in romantic and non-romantic ways both clear and more subtle.
This novel explores major themes of love, both for other humans and for one’s country. These are nothing if not well-traveled paths, but Kim does a great job keeping them fresh, showing the many types of love a person can have for another, past the basic parental (familial) and romantic, as well as the many ways it can be shown, the flashy and the quietly sustaining, or denied. I did enjoy seeing the variety of mother-daughter relationships, and choices made one for the other. As far as love of country, there was a lot that happened here. Although JungHo espoused a particular outlook (communism), so we saw that one the most, it was also from the perspective of someone living in the southern part of the country (where that governmental form did not ever hold the upper hand). It was interesting to see how that played out for him individually, but also within the context of revolution for the country in general, as the myriad political ideologies of Korea were all working together at one point to fight for the country’s independence from Japan’s colonialism, then splintered back out as that independence became reality.
The last thing that I want to mention are the connections amongst all the characters. I have spoken mostly of Jade and JungHo so far, as they are the MCs, but there was a strong cast of supporting characters as well, who showed up in various ways throughout the novel and throughout each other’s lives. Kim handled that weaving together of stories deftly, in a way that was believable in its coincidence, frequent enough to keep interest but not so intertwined as to be unbelievable. I liked how some of them came to realize the moments the others overlapped, and sometimes these connections of connections happened without anyone else finding out. Similarly, the recurring mentions of the cigarette case and the silver ring, the way they too are carried from beginning to end, connecting stories and lives with a sentimental symbolic object coming back around, was a device well-used. I particularly liked that for one, the connection behind it (a surprise to both when it happened) came to light for everyone involved, but the other remained unknown (the actual provenance of the item wasn’t known to the characters, but that added an even stronger bittersweet emotional response for me as a reader).
Overall, a wonderful story of interconnected lives and the turbulent recent history of Korea through the eyes of various individuals who lived it, survived it, in whatever ways they could. This is the kind of historical fiction that pulls heartstrings and inspires further (nonfiction) research on the part of the reader – a wonderful combination.
A few passages from the novel to enjoy:
“In prolonged destruction, there was no spirit of unity such as the one they shared in the face of a quick and heroic death.”
“Love was defined by how much one could suffer for another, by what you were willing to do to protect this person. It was a question of choosing the person with whom you’d like to hold hands on your last train ride.”
“Time had the effect of muting everything, but it could never erase something real.”
“Everyone dreams, but only some people are dreamers. The nondreamers, by far more numerous, are those who see the world as it is. Then there are the few dreamers, who see the world as they are. […] The world feels like an oil painting rather than a photograph, and the dreamers are forever seeing hidden colors where others just see the top shade. The nondreamers look through glasses, and the dreamers through a prism.”
“Life is only bearable because time makes you forget everything. But life is worthwhile because love makes you remember everything.”
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