Yangjin. Hoonie. Their parents. Sunja. Bohkee. Dohkee. Koh Hansu. Isak. Noa. Yoseb. Kyunghee. Mozasu. Kim. Goro. Totoyama. Tamaguchi. Akiko. Risa. Yumi. Solomon. Haruki. Daisuke. Ayame. Etsuko. Hana. Phoebe. Kazu. Uchida.
So many lives, so many incidents, so many details.
What a wonderful book with a powerful voice and a robust plot!
The matter-of-fact livelihood of Koreans starting late 1800s begins with Yangjin who believes a woman has no choice but to suffer in life. The story revolves around Yangjin's daughter Sunja, one of her sons, Mozasu and his son Solomon while others come and go.
Throughout the book, as the story progresses, many people die. But you know, even Death will fear stepping in and sabotaging the author’s world because Min Jin Lee bravely sets up the stage of eastern philosophy, allegedly providing answers to questions on Poverty, Suffering, Death and Ignorance.
The stage is all set? Lo-and-behold, all and sundry are now Min Jin Lee’s puppets riding the cycle of life. Some go through the motions, some accept their fate, some constantly rebel, some conform, but fret and regret in perpetuity. Instead of lingering and grieving their deaths, the story moves on to other living people, just like the way it happens in real life, to real people.
Sunja's life is her kids - Noa borne with Hansu and Mozasu with Isak. Mozasu is pragmatic and accepting with a retort of 'So the fuck what?' to life's debilitating problems unlike Noa who is serious, disturbed and ashamed of his roots.
Though I'm tempted to defend Noa because his parents screwed him up, his overwhelming self-involvement makes him to a large extent apathetic, even to his own wife and children, and I dislike that part of the story. Not because it doesn’t belong. Because it makes me feel iffy and restless enough to want to scream at Noa, “SNAP OUT OF IT”. That’s not me being insensitive or judgmental. That’s just me wanting to see a talented man happy. Like why couldn’t he have gotten a break?!
One thing the book says loudly is about fair treatment - it doesn’t matter if you were born in Japan but as long as you are not of Japanese ancestry, you will be discriminated against and treated poorly. Money, however, can make this ordeal less intense. Wealth is a powerful language and you may find people nodding even when there’s no talking. Solomon inherits some of Mozasu's views and refuses to believe that America is better than Japan for Koreans or that Americans treat Koreans better. He believes there are bad Japanese, as there are bad Koreans, and that's no reason to believe in generalizations. Practical dude.
Sunja is the silent spectator in all this. She reminds me of some Indian folks of the older generation. The kind that believe in fate, those that are swift to resign to situations. Sunja waits for death to unite with her dead husband, whom she had been grateful for and a son, for whom she feels she did not do enough or often at the wrong time. I feel for her but also marvel at her resolve. That old woman had the grit to take on life, stare at its face plainly with no judgement while carrying on with her chores as a daughter, wife, sister-in-law, mother, grandmother. She needed to stomach the atrocities life brought and bear with the burdens of age and time and did so with strength and grace. Coming from 19th century, that’s quite impressive.
This is the story of a woman from a time long ago - yet not far from some truths in our backyard - and her elegance in navigating a society in Korea and Japan while handling hurdles and accepting life with poise.
It felt like Sunja could have been one of my ancestors. The narrative could have easily been one of the stories I heard from my grandmother. I thank Min Jin Lee for this personal, relatable and thoroughly enjoyable movie i got to play in my head.
4.8 out of 5 stars.