In this landmark addition to the literature of totalitarianism, award-winning journalist Barbara Demick follows the lives of six North Korean citizens over fifteen years--a chaotic period that saw the death of Kim Il-sung, the rise to power of his son Kim Jong-il (the father of Kim Jong-un), and a devastating famine that killed one-fifth of the population. Read more...
In this landmark addition to the literature of totalitarianism, award-winning journalist Barbara Demick follows the lives of six North Korean citizens over fifteen years--a chaotic period that saw the death of Kim Il-sung, the rise to power of his son Kim Jong-il (the father of Kim Jong-un), and a devastating famine that killed one-fifth of the population. Demick brings to life what it means to be living under the most repressive regime today--an Orwellian world that is by choice not connected to the Internet, where displays of affection are punished, informants are rewarded, and an offhand remark can send a person to the gulag for life. She takes us deep inside the country, beyond the reach of government censors, and through meticulous and sensitive reporting we see her subjects fall in love, raise families, nurture ambitions, and struggle for survival. One by one, we witness their profound, life-altering disillusionment with the government and their realization that, rather than providing them with lives of abundance, their country has betrayed them. Praise for Nothing to Envy "Provocative . . . offers extensive evidence of the author's deep knowledge of this country while keeping its sights firmly on individual stories and human details."--The New York Times "Deeply moving . . . The personal stories are related with novelistic detail."--The Wall Street Journal "A tour de force of meticulous reporting."--The New York Review of Books "Excellent . . . humanizes a downtrodden, long-suffering people whose individual lives, hopes and dreams are so little known abroad."--San Francisco Chronicle "The narrow boundaries of our knowledge have expanded radically with the publication of Nothing to Envy. . . . Elegantly structured and written, it] is a groundbreaking work of literary nonfiction."--John Delury, Slate "At times a page-turner, at others an intimate study in totalitarian psychology."--The Philadelphia Inquirer
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 51.
- Review Date: 2009-09-28
- Reviewer: Staff
A fascinating and deeply personal look at the lives of six defectors from the repressive totalitarian regime of the Republic of North Korea, in which Demick, an L.A. Times staffer and former Seoul bureau chief, draws out details of daily life that would not otherwise be known to Western eyes because of the near-complete media censorship north of the arbitrary border drawn after Japan's surrender ending WWII. As she reveals, “ordinary” life in North Korea by the 1990s became a parade of horrors, where famine killed millions, manufacturing and trade virtually ceased, salaries went unpaid, medical care failed, and people became accustomed to stepping over dead bodies lying in the streets. Her terrifying depiction of North Korea from the night sky, where the entire area is blacked out from failure of the electrical grid, contrasts vividly with the propaganda on the ground below urging the country's worker-citizens to believe that they are the envy of the world. Thorough interviews recall the tremendous difficulty of daily life under the regime, as these six characters reveal the emotional and cultural turmoil that finally caused each to make the dangerous choice to leave. As Demick weaves their stories together with the hidden history of the country's descent into chaos, she skillfully re-creates these captivating and moving personal journeys. (Jan.)
Ordinary life in an extraordinary place
The power of a personal story is wielded to strong effect in Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, a largely oral history “based upon seven years of conversations with North Koreans.” In an expertly constructed narrative that blends riveting storytelling, thorough research and astute investigate reporting, Demick paints a shocking picture of daily life in the socialist Republic of North Korea through the stories of six defectors now living in South Korea. At the close of World War II, after Japan’s surrender in 1945, the U.S. military arbitrarily divided the Korean peninsula into two sectors, North and South, to be overseen by the Soviet Union and the United States. Kim Il-sung soon came to power in North Korea, creating an Orwellian socialist regime that plunged the country into economic chaos and famine. By the 1990s, manufacturing and trade had stopped, jobs and salaries dried up and government systems regulating health care and food distribution crumbled. Millions of people starved to death. Those who survived lived in darkness, both metaphorical and, due to the universal lack of electrical power, actual. The book’s chilling opening, which shows an entirely darkened night sky over North Korea, stands in terrible contrast to the “enlightened” doctrine that every North Korean is taught: that their country is superior, that their “dear father” (now Kim Il-sung’s son, Kim Jong-il) is their loving protector-provider and that they have “nothing to envy.” The stories of the North Koreans profiled give the lie to this line of propaganda; theirs are lives of deprivation, secrecy and fear. Nothing to Envyis an eye-opening book about a country that remains mostly hidden and off-limits to the rest of the world. Demick expertly balances her excellent grasp of North Korea’s history and culture with six sensitively presented personal stories, each rife with the emotional trauma of cultural betrayal, to create an indelible portrait of one of the last modern Communist regimes. Alison Hood writes from Marin County, California.