Review: Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

by Kim on February 9, 2011 · 28 comments

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Title: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
Author: Barbara Demick
Genre: Narrative Nonfiction
Year: 2009
Acquired: Library
Rating: ★★★★★

One Sentence Summary: Demick uses extensive interviews with North Korean defectors to write about what life is like in the most closed-off country in the world.

One Sentence Review: Nothing to Envy is a book that’s hard to read and hard to put down because of how well Demick is able to construct what life is like in North Korea.

Why I Read It: Nothing to Envy got on my radar because it was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Award in nonfiction, but I chose to read it because Demick is a journalist and I’m fascinated by nonfiction stories that are almost impossible to tell.

Long Review: For a country that is in the news every other day, it’s startling how little anyone actually knows about North Korea. I’ve always felt like a relatively educated person, one who keeps up on world events enough to have a passing knowledge of what’s going on. But I have to say, almost everything in Barbara Demick’s book Nothing to Envy was new to me, and I’m left feeling shocked at how well the North Korean government has pulled the wool over the eyes of the world.

Demick wrote this book while she was working as a journalist covering the Koreas. As a reporter, Demick had relatively unlimited access to South Korea, but was rarely allowed in North Korea, and certainly not without an escort. As her frustration with not being able to report on half of a country continued, Demick came in contact with members of a small but growing community — residents of North Korea who had escaped and defected to South Korea. Through the stories of six of these escapees, plus her own limited exposure to North Korea, Demick tries to show what life is like for ordinary people living in an unordinary country.

The first part of the book gives a brief history of North and South Korea, a history I was woefully ignorant of. I was surprised to learn that, in reality, there isn’t anything genetically different about people from North or South Korea — the divide between the countries is an artificial construct put in place after WWII (I knew that part). Whether a citizen ended up in the North or South after the big divide was a matter of luck, and since then the two countries have moved further and further apart.

In the year’s since, the Communist policies of Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il, the current leader, have driven the country into poverty. A famine brought on by these policies killed one-fifth of the entire population. Although capitalism is outlawed, a black market has emerged to let people survive. North Koreans are taught to obey their leaders at all costs, yet terrible government policies led to a system in which only people who disobey can survive.

Can you tell the book made me angry?

What makes these facts stick in my memory is how well Demick tells the stories of the defectors she interviewed. She follows them from faithful North Korean citizens through the events that forced them to escape. And she covers a wide range of people — two young lovers who separately defect without being able to tell each other, a North Korean housewife and her rebellious daughter, an orphan who begged on the streets, and a female doctor. Through their stories, the regime’s decisions take on an emotional weight a book on just policy wouldn’t have.

When I think about the North Korea that Demick describes, it reminds me a bit of a car crash — you don’t want to see it, but once you get a glimpse it’s hard to turn away. The book is fascinating, sad, and frustrating all at the time, which is the best sort of narrative nonfiction.

Other Reviews: Lotus Reads | Vulpes Libris | A Striped Armchair |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

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