I read Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives of North Koreans over the holiday. It’s been on my list of books to buy for a long while, but it was only acquired during an early December raid on Powell’s — which turned out to be great timing because, unrelated, the death of Kim Jong-Il soon followed.
Anyway, I devoured Nothing to Envy in two days, and in fact I would have read it faster if I hadn’t been sick with a lousy cold and slammed with work at the same time — it was a page turner.
I’ve been considering why it was so compelling. Barbara Demick imparts an astounding amount of information about North Korean politics, economics, diet, language, social structure, prisons, markets, almost without the reader noticing, so caught up are we in the stories of the characters.
When I looked at it again, pencil in hand, I realized that the whole book is actually framed around a doomed love story between two North Koreans, with other characters’ stories woven in between.
The thing I find so interesting about this is that Demick lets reader knows very early — page 9 — that the love story won’t have a happy ending. So the tension that sustains this book isn’t a sappy will-the-boy-get-the-girl. The tension comes from wondering how this relationship will unfold and unravel, and what it will all mean.
It’s a device she uses on a smaller scale with other characters, too. I admire this for a few reasons — first, because it works; second, because it reduces the amount of work the reader must do to keep up — these are complicated stories; third, it strikes me as fundamentally honest. The writer knows how the story is going to end, and while readers don’t want the whole story thrown at them all at once, it’s refreshing to see the authorial strategy on the table. Once you’re re-reading the book, that is — there’s no way to catch any of this on the first go.
In her acknowledgments, Demick thanks John Hersey, who was her teacher (a very subtle way of saying she went to Yale, I suppose). She says that Hiroshima was an inspiration as she wrote her book — which has now led me to re-read Hiroshima. I’m in the midst of it now, too soon to say anything at all about it, but I’m curious to see if I can find the inspiration for one remarkable book in another.