book review, brutalities, controlled emotions, crossed paths, distant storytelling, historical fiction, Japanese rule, Juhea Kim, Korea, oppression, saga, stereotypes, telling vs showing, twentieth century, utilitarian viewpoint
Review: Beasts of a Little Land, by Juhea Kim
Ecco, 2021. 399 pp. $27
In 1917, seven years into the Japanese occupation of Korea, a hunter tracks a tiger because its skin is worth a small fortune, and he hopes to save his starving family from death. But he nearly perishes in the snow during the hunt, and again when he runs into a party of Japanese officers intent on bagging a trophy, any trophy. However, when he saves one officer from the tiger — without killing the beast or even holding a weapon — the officer spares his life.
Meanwhile, a woman sells her eleven-year-old daughter, Jade, to a high-class courtesan, who accepts the girl despite her unprepossessing looks and character.
From these two events, whose aftereffects play out over decades, comes a saga about wealth and poverty, freedom and depression, and, perhaps most important, the ability (or lack thereof) to see beneath surfaces or deal with emotional vulnerability — indeed, any emotions at all. Along the way, the novel mirrors the story of Korean independence, emphasizing the twenty years between the tiger hunt and Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1937, though the narrative continues to 1965.
Besides Jade, her mentor, and the two courtesans-in-training among whom she grows up, there’s an orphan boy who lives in the street, whom Jade befriends, and a couple of businessmen and a writer-turned-politician. Jade crosses paths, and sometimes more, with all of them. Each represents a particular emotional type, whether the violent man who expresses himself through his fists, the blueblood conscious of his rank and importance, and so forth.
I’m not the first critic to point out that Kim’s Japanese officers summon up a stereotype. They’re practically stick figures whose stunted limbs consist of greed, sadism, the conception of honor (read: pride), and utter incomprehension of human feeling. On the surface, they’re almost out of the wartime propaganda film. But Kim has two goals, I think, which grant the portrait a purpose.
First, she’s writing for an audience that might have heard of the atrocities in Nanjing in 1937 and maybe the so-called comfort women conscripted for military brothels, but for whom Japanese brutalities in Asia are largely a blank — and her story begins decades before them, anyway.
Second, the officers’ incapacity to view people, places, or objects from any perspective other than utilitarian extends to many of the Korean characters too, especially the men. But several women buy into this philosophy as well, assuming that once they lose their looks — in their thirties! — they’ve nothing left, and their lives are over. In that way, the Japanese officers’ fatal flaw, lack of heart, is on the same continuum as everyone else’s. As a result, few characters in this novel are happy or even know what that might look like, except possibly in retrospect.
The narrative worldview may take getting used to; so does the prose style. At first, the author’s manner of explaining everything — landscape, actions, feelings — struck me wrong. I admire her writing for its simple elegance, certain passages of which are beautiful without calling attention to themselves, so I wondered why she told everything rather than show it. But I stuck with it, and I think I see what she’s after, a panoramic discourse akin to Tolstoy or, as with the opening scenes depicting the tiger hunt, a legend. See what you make of this typical passage, which parses the thoughts of SungSoo, a businessman, on finding a former lover talking to a onetime friend whom he looks down on, as news of the emperor’s death has reached them:
Once the soju [liquor] had circulated through their bodies, each began to feel more comfortable — not about the emperor’s death, but the situation among themselves. It is always excruciating to discover that one’s distinct connections, who ought to belong firmly and chastely in separate spheres of one’s life, are somehow acquainted, and perhaps more intimately than one would like. Each of them keenly suffered from this, though SungSoo in particular took this as an insult and a betrayal. His good breeding and the soothing effects of soju were the only things that kept him from succumbing to the jealousy that burned deeply in his chest.
You may like this style, or it may feel distant, but if you read Beasts of a Little Land, get used to it. As with many sagas (not my usual fare), the attempt to make everything larger than life can seem stilted, especially when the crossing of paths feels contrived, or scenes unfold according to a predictable pattern. I wish too that Kim or her editor had weeded out phrases like blow off, reach out to, okay with, and playbook, when we’re supposed to be reading about early twentieth-century Korea.
But taken in its entirety, Beasts of a Little Land has something going for it, not least history that may be unfamiliar.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.