Synopsis via Goodreads: Nothing to Envy follows the lives of six North Koreans over fifteen years—a chaotic period that saw the death of Kim Il-sung, the unchallenged rise to power of his son Kim Jong-il, and the devastation of a far-ranging famine that killed one-fifth of the population.
I’m not too sure how it started, but my mother is on a North Korea kick at the moment, reading books such as Escape from Camp 14. She asked me to find her a new one to read and after some research, I came across Nothing to Envy. After reading a few reviews saying that interviews were written as a narrative, and that it was a compelling account of ‘what it means to be living under the most repressive totalitarian regime today—an Orwellian world that is by choice not connected to the Internet’ and of one of the most reclusive societies in the world (citizens are rarely allowed out, and visitors, if allowed in, see the country only under a strict veneer), I had to read it.
The title is taken from a popular song taught to schoolchildren at an early age, and is familiar to them as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star is to us:
Our father, we have nothing to envy in the world. / Our house is within the embrace of the Workers’ Party. / We are all brothers and sisters. / Even if a sea of fire comes toward us, sweet children do not need to be afraid. / Our father is here. / We have nothing to envy in this world.
If you’ve been following Pretty Books for a while, you’ll know that dystopian fiction is a favourite mine, so why should a book about North Korea shock me? I read about societies where severe social control is exerted, and lack of individual freedom is widespread, often. But honestly? I never really thought about this country, a country that fits into the definition of ‘dystopian society’ so well. And what is most shocking is that it isn’t just ‘history’ – people are still murdered or sent to labour camps for attempting to leave the country, or for making a joke about the ‘Eternal President’, today.
Nothing to Envy follows the enthralling lives of six people who we know eventually defected from North Korea, such as Jun-sang, the son of a wealthy family destined to join the Worker’s Party; his girlfriend Mi-ran, from a family ranked much lower in society meaning they must keep their relationship a secret; and Mrs Song, who always followed the teachings of Kim Il-sung so strictly, despite never having enough food to eat, and would never dare to step out of line. I was desperate to know what made these people leave the country they’ve always been told they’re privileged to be born in, and how they escaped. I instead got much more out of the book than this. It is utterly compelling; a fascinating, incredible, brilliant read. I hated having to put it down.