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The Girl with Seven Names Paperback – May 10, 2016
"Neverworld Wake" by Marisha Pessl
Read the absorbing new psychological suspense thriller from acclaimed New York Times bestselling author Marisha Pessl. Learn more
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‘The most riveting TED talk ever’ Oprah
‘A sad and beautiful story of a girl who could not even keep her name, yet overcame all with the identity of what it is to be human’ Jang Jin-sung, author of ‘Dear Leader’
‘Stirring and brave … true, committed, unvarnished and honest. Lee has made her own life the keyhole to the present, inside and outside of North Korea’ Scotsman
‘Remarkable bravery fluently recounted’ Kirkus
About the Author
Hyeonseo Lee grew up in North Korea but escaped to China in 1997. In 2008, after more than 10 years there, she came to Seoul, South Korea, where she struggled to adjust to life in the bustling city. Recently graduated from Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, she has become a regular speaker on the international stage fostering human rights and awareness of the plight of North Koreans. She is an advocate for fellow refugees, even helping close relatives leave North Korea. Her TED talk has been viewed nearly 4m times. She is married to her American husband Brian Gleason and currently lives in South Korea.
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She has dangerous interactions with gangs, which she survives, was assaulted badly by an unknown assailant with a 1 liter beer bottle, an incident that did put her in the hospital and other adventures. One learns a bit about China and North Korea in this book. She has relatives which span several classes of North Korean society and one can get a feeling for what those strata are like. She also talks about the great amount of indoctrination she received during her education, of course this is common among the accounts of DPRK defectors.
Different that most of the defectors books she does describe the challenges facing defectors in South Korea. Their education is worthless and hence most of them severely struggle to obtain a college degree, which is important in South Korea. she also describes the process by which they vet defectors as well as the interrogation techniques of the Chinese police.
Once she has made it to South Korea she brings her mother and brother out of North Korea. This activity has several difficult twists which meant that the plan had to change in major ways on the fly and the challenges of getting through China to another country to defect to a South Korean embassy are shown. They chose Laos, a backwater whose insufferable bureaucracy and corrupt civil service made things hard. A very helpful Australian saves the day.
The story is interesting and one learns a fair bit about North Korea and China.
The book is divided into parts, describing the author's life in North Korea, then her life in China (an entire decade), escape to South Korea, and finally, the ordeal of getting her mother and brother out of North Korea. I won't bother to summarize everything other than to say that her life was in significant danger in every place except for South Korea. In China, she makes a life and barely avoids deportation, being captured by human traffickers, and an arranged marriage to a complete zero.
The biggest surprise for me was maybe how hard it is for North Koreans to adjust to life outside of their country. Of course, it is very different, and despite knowing that they will likely be tortured and killed if they go back, some want to return anyway. The author's own brother almost goes back in a moment of weakness, but she manages to talk him out of it.
Thinking back on this story, it seems almost unbelievable that a person could have lived this life. It took huge amounts of courage, intelligence, and luck, all of which the author has.
While the book gives the reader a basic idea of what life is like living in North Korea, it was the author’s determination, perseverance and resourcefulness that leaps off the pages and impresses the reader the most. Indeed, the book’s tone reads as if it’s of the “thriller” genre even though it’s actually non-fiction. A truly remarkable story of intelligence and courage (yet educational as well).
Note: One reason for the book’s “thriller” tone was that many of the chapters end with a teaser sentence which urges the reader to immediately go on the next chapter. For an autobiographically work, I found that writing style a bit disconcerting.