“Life is only bearable because time makes you forget everything. But life is worthwhile because love makes you remember everything.”― Juhea Kim, Beasts of a Little Land.
Juhea Kim’s first novel tells a story of friendship and forgiveness during Korea’s fight for independence. The novel begins in 1917, when a captive a Korean hunter saves a young Japanese officer from an attacking tiger. In an instant, their destinies are connected, laying the foundation for an intricate saga spanning five decades.
Central to the narrative is Jade Ahn, a young girl from a poor rural family who is sold to Miss Silver’s courtesan school in Pyongyang. She forms a deep friendship with an orphan boy named JungHo, who ekes out a living begging on the streets of Seoul. As they come of age, JungHo is swept up in the revolutionary fight for independence, and Jade becomes a celebrated courtesan and movie star.
The novel unfolds through the skillful storytelling of Juhea Kim, a Korean-born writer with a Princeton education. I gained a better understanding of Japan’s occupation of Korea during WWII. The novel sheds light on the Koreans’ unyielding determination to break free from the yoke of oppression.
Particularly intriguing were the insights into the life of a courtesan within a culture that holds many in reverence. I didn’t know they used pulverized, powdered seashells on their faces. I always thought it was rice powder.
While the novel’s intensity and depth were gripping, the pacing occasionally led my thoughts to wander. The abundance of detail, while enriching the narrative, also contributed to its slower rhythm. The myriad characters further challenged my engagement, sometimes leaving me disoriented.
A tragic and somber tone marks this haunting tale, which explores themes of unrequited love, dire poverty, and the harsh realities of Japanese occupation. A word of caution for the sensitive reader: the book contains unsettling instances of violence, including rape, assault, and murder.
Author Juhea Kim is off to a good start in her writing career. Beasts of a Little Land is perfect for fans of Min Jin Lee, Lisa See, and Amy Tan. I suggest reading this novel rather than choosing the audiobook. The narrator is terrific, but the characters are hard to keep track of. 4 stars.
** Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for a complimentary copy of this novel. The opinions are my own.