Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 18, 2022

The Last Exiles, by Ann Shin

Ann Shin is a Canadian author of Korean heritage, and she has crafted this illuminating novel from interviews with North Korean defectors, who she met for her documentary, The Defector: Escape from North Korea which won Best Documentary and Best Documentary Director at the 2014 Canadian Screen Academy. The Last Exiles won the 2022 Trillium Award.

This is the blurb:

An unforgettable saga inspired by true events, The Last Exiles is a searing portrait of a young couple in Pyongyang and their fight for love and freedom

Jin and Suja meet and fall in love while studying at university in Pyongyang. She is a young journalist from a prominent family, while he is from a small village of little means. Outside the school, North Korea has fallen under great political upheaval, plunged into chaos and famine. When Jin returns home to find his family starving, their food rations all but gone, he makes a rash decision that will haunt him for the rest of his life. Meanwhile, miles away, Suja has begun to feel the tenuousness of her privilege when she learns that Jin has disappeared. Risking everything, and defying her family, Suja sets out to find him, embarking on a dangerous journey that leads her into a dark criminal underbelly and tests their love and will to survive.

In this vivid and moving story, award-winning filmmaker Ann Shin offers a rare glimpse at life inside the guarded walls of North Korea and the harrowing experiences of those who are daring enough to attempt escape. Inspired by real stories of incredible bravery, The Last Exiles is a stunning debut about love, sacrifice and the price of liberty.

Yes, the blurber has made elements of it sound a bit like a slushy romance, but it’s much better than that.

I haven’t read much from Korea, but one book that has stayed with me is The Accusation, Forbidden Stories from inside North Korea. It is samizdat literature, smuggled out of North Korea, and published for safety’s sake under the nom de plume Bandi and translated by Deborah Smith. In my review you can read how a series of short stories illuminated the poverty, the repression and the methods of social control under North Korea’s oppressive and cruel regime.  The Last Exiles is written from the safety of Canada, but one can only admire the courage of the defectors who provided the information for Ann Shin to write her story.

In a corrupt society there are always those who are better off than others, and in The Last Exiles Jin is only able to meet the wealthy Suja at university because he’s a brilliant student who has won a scholarship.  His poverty is obvious to all, and he has to endure derogatory remarks from his fellow students about his clothes, his accent and his rural origins.  Despite these social differences their love blossoms and Jin has dreams of one day being able to impress her family by being presented to the ‘Dear Leader’ as a scholar. Both of these young people have no idea about the real world because of the tightly censored information machine, and they are, for different reasons, loyal to the regime.  Jin is grateful for his scholarship benefits which enable him to transcend his family’s poverty (and send extra rations back home) while Suja’s family owes its wealth and privilege to its role in the media, and Suja is bypassing ‘official’ channels to further her future career as a photojournalist.

The catalyst for the disaster that befalls them both is Jin’s visit to his home village.  He is horrified by the effects of the famine on his family, made worse by his father’s principled refusal to supplement their meagre diet with black market goods. When soldiers ransack the village Jin impulsively sets off to report the crime, but inadvertently ends up with a bag of stolen cornmeal. A jealous neighbour informs the authorities and after a brutal beating he ends up in prison where he used as slave labour.

BEWARE: SPOILERS

Suja is distraught at his failure to return to university, and when she finds out about his much publicised escape from prison, and his likely fate when they catch him, she uses her investigative skills and a not a little luck to set off for the north to find him.

I won’t give much away, but they both end up separately in China.  Jin heads for a river crossing, while Shin takes a goods train as far as she can gp. Smugglers betray both of them with promises of work evaporating once they cross over the border. Even so, they are astonished at the comparative luxury of Chinese farmers, and Jin can’t understand why crops are lush and plentiful in China while just over the border in North Korea there is mass starvation.  But the crackdown on illegal Korean labour has made the trade in defectors too risky, and the traders are, for the time being, only interested in using Korean women for the marriage market.  (The imbalance between men and women in China is due to the One Child Policy.)

The novel is a romance with a couple of implausible plot points to move it along, but it paints a vivid picture of the suffering of the North Korean people and the terrible risks that some take to reach freedom.  The author is a documentary film-maker, and while her style is unadorned, she conveys her scenes with background detail that brings the story to life.

They were approaching a strip of noodle shops and barbecue restaurants, and smells of roasted meat and soup wafted over to them.  Jin’s stomach began to grumble.  Stepping around a pile of lidded boxes and bowls at a plastics store, he asked, ‘How do you know Sarge?’

‘Met him here in Tonghua, he’s a broker who helps people escape, and there plenty others like him.  Sometimes they come to the tunnel too.  Hell, Hyuk knows about them, everyone does.’

‘Everyone,’ Jin repeated laconically, eyeing Bo, figuring he was the kind of guy who made blanket statements like that.  ‘Everyone’ could mean one person, or even no one.  He pulled Bo to one side as a man behind carrying two large plastic bags cussed angrily as he pushed past them.  There were so many people on the sidewalk, jostling one another, fearlessly oblivious to the motorised bikes that snorted in and among the pedestrians and cars.  All the people wore warm clothes that fit their bodies, bright blue and neon sport jackets, dark woollen coats with fur trim, flashing silver and gold buttons.  How plump the women were, their cheeks fresh and sound.  These were well-fed people living the good life.  (pp.200-201)

The Last Exiles is an impressive debut novel with a suspenseful plot. Book groups would enjoy it, and according to her website, Shin welcomes invitations for virtual author visits.

Title: The Last Exiles
Publisher: HQ Fiction, (Harper Collins) 2021
Cover designer not named
ISBN: 9781867234579, pbk., 317 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh, $29.99


Responses

  1. Interesting that most of the small number of Korean books I’ve read have not been published in Korea. Just what’s getting through to us?

    Like

    • Good question. I don’t know…

      Liked by 1 person

    • The stories out of North Korea always sound so harrowing. I’m a nervous wreck reading some of these stories of oppression and escape.😳

      Liked by 2 people

      • Yes… I know what you mean.

        Like

  2. Interesting reads! I have just finished a book by a Korean-British violin prodigy, Gone: A Girl, A Violin, A Life Unstrung by Min Kym. Makes me understand a bit more about Korean family values. Have been reading some books by Korean writers in recent years too, after Pachinko. Crying in H Mart is another one.

    Like

    • Hi Arti, I like the sound of that one. (Music and art in fiction, a divine combo for me!)
      But (see Sue’s comment above) are we getting stories from Korea, or just from Korean expats?

      Like

      • You’re right. These are not books published right in Korea and translated into English. I’ve yet to read any of such. BTW, the violinist book is a memoir, not fiction. She was an award winning prodigy when young… and then something happened. Even though not written in Korea, and she grew up in the UK, her cultural baggage is heavy. That’s something worth exploring for immigrant children growing up having to live with two drastically different cultures in a foreign land. I count myself as a case in point… albeit not as conflicting as Kym, and alas, definitely not as talented.

        Like


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