The year is 1918 when a little girl named Jade gets sold into a courtesan school and told never to come back home by her mother. Not too far away, a young boy named Nam Jungho, the son of a hunter, arrives in Seoul in search of a better life.
Juhea Kim’s expansive historical fiction portrays how the lives of individuals are irrevocably intertwined. Set against the backdrop of the Japanese occupation of Korea and the subsequent resistance movement that sprung in the country, Beasts of a Little Land is a powerful story about fate, war, love, and resilience.
As someone with a penchant for stories set in various historical periods, I was thoroughly immersed in the novel.
This has largely to do with the depiction of Korean culture, the author’s writing style, and the ease with which the events of history have been incorporated into the narrative.
I am so impressed with the writing that I will readily read anything Juhea Kim ever writes. There’s a poetic beauty in how she views nature and correlates the same to the experiences of her characters.
For instance, the novel begins with a visual – “The sky was white and the earth was black.” Much later in the story, after important developments have occurred, this image is then contrasted with “… the black sky met the white earth.”
Moreover, she also uses time leaps to cover significant moments in the lives of the characters as well as the political terrain of Korea from 1917 to the late 1960s. While the aspirations and struggles of the oppressed form the foundation of the plot, Juhea Kim also gives voice to the colonial forces, placing military generals and officials in consequential, albeit deplorable, roles.
“You see, the absorption of a weaker nation and/ or peoples by a stronger nation and/or peoples is not only inevitable, but desirable,”
By and large, this is not entirely a plot-driven novel. You’d be surprised to know that Jade and Jungho are but two of the nearly dozen characters that are crucial to the story. I didn’t find this to be confusing at all. In fact, I liked how effortlessly the author connects their storylines. In her words:
“All existences were touching lightly as air and leaving invisible fingerprints.”
It’s seldom that I come across book titles that are symbolic and hold a galaxy of meaning. The author, in capturing dichotomies, has brought out the ferocity with which people fight for what they deem belongs to them, be it land, wealth, or the affection of another.
Despite them having little means, no dream is too large. Not for Myungbo, who sees communism as the solution to their impoverished state. Or for Jungho, who strives to be “the perfect man” for Jade. Or for Lotus, who is bent on getting more recognition for her talent.
So when Ito wonders to himself, “How such enormous beasts have flourished in this little land is incomprehensible.” the metaphor is not lost on the reader, having followed the numerous storylines and watched the characters attempt to thrive.
What’s interesting to observe is that in writing a story about activists, courtesans, performers, and colonizers, the author succinctly highlights the double standards in society, compelling us to conclude that there’s no end to human avarice.
“A wedding ties two people together in love; but how many more people argue, despair, and swear off one another in its wake?”
Regardless of how much I appreciated reading the novel, I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. Some of the themes it explores can be difficult as there are instances of sexual assault, mass murders, starvation, and such.
The characters aren’t all made to be likeable. And yet, that didn’t stop me from being invested in their stories. Through Jade’s adapting nature, Hancheol’s ambition, Yamada’s dilemmas, we get glimpses of the lived realities of countless people across the world. And that is what makes the novel timeless in a sense.
There were only a couple of things that I felt could’ve been improved upon. One being the way Ito’s storyline wraps up. Considering his actions, I felt there was no need to paint him in a redeemable light by having him help Jade in any fashion.
With regards to several elements of the premise, the story does come full circle, and I enjoyed that aspect.
On the whole, it is a reflective novel that somehow carries within it the very essence of our existence. I definitely see Beasts of a Little Land being one of my favourite reads of 2022.
Have you already read this and looking for more historical fictions? Check out The Stationery Shop of Tehran.
Note – I received an ALC of this book from Libro.fm in exchange for an honest review.