Book Review: Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

 Our father, we have nothing to envy in the world.
Our house is within the embrace of the Worker’s 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.”
-A well-known song in North Korea

Liberty and love
These two I must have
For my love I’ll sacrifice
My life.
For liberty I’ll sacrifice
My love.
-Sandor Petofi


I’m not the biggest fan of nonfiction. In fact, I think this may be one of four nonfiction/historical books I’ve read in my entire life. I’ve had a vague interest and curiosity in North Korea for a few years now, but aside from a few videos on YouTube, I never really pursued that interest. This semester in school, I am taking a class called “Cultures of East Asia” in order to fulfill a humanities requirement I need to finish the last of my generals. A few weeks ago, we were learning about the Korean War and read a few pages of this. It fueled my curiosity even more, so I immediately went to the library and found a copy of the book. It’s one of the most compelling and thought-provoking books I have ever had the privilege to read.

The book follows the lives of six North Koreans and their families over the late 20th and early 21st centuries during the reign of Kim Il-Sung and, after his death, Kim Jong-Il. It reads a lot more like a story than a history textbook, which is one of the reasons I became so easily engrossed in it. The fact that these are honest, personal accounts in context of actual historical events just makes it all the more compelling. Even if you aren’t familiar with all the history (as I wasn’t), Demick does a good job of explaining the important concepts in a way that provides understanding without causing the reader to lose interest.

These are not happy stories by any means. They are full of tragedy, hardship, and loss. As I read, I was constantly reminded of George Orwell’s 1984. The parallels are astounding, and I honestly almost wondered how Orwell had predicted such events with that much accuracy, or whether the North Korean regime had perhaps drawn on his novel for ideas on how to control the general population. I realize that sounds a little preposterous. It probably is. Nevertheless, it’s impossible not to make the connection once you’ve read both books.

Despite the grim nature of such serious subject matter, the book did a wonderful job of showing the bright spots in the midst of such hardship. It’s easy to only see the bad when you look at North Korea, and clearly there is far more bad to be seen than good. But the country is full of honest, everyday people whose will to survive is inspiring, and who have strong relationships that still bring them joy even in the worst of times. I thought that was a very realistic portrayal of the human condition in general – that even in the worst situations, there are flickers of happiness and triumph.

One of the things I appreciated most about the book was its candid and relatively unbiased approach to North Korea. I say “relatively” because Demick pulls no punches when portraying the suffering inflicted upon ordinary citizens, but I think that’s justified. However, she also doesn’t completely demonize the country or portray its people as dim-witted pawns unable to see the truth when it’s staring them in the face. Also, the book did a good job of portraying the hardships encountered by the story’s “main characters” after they defected to South Korea. Before reading this book, I hadn’t considered all of the challenges involved in crossing the border and getting to South Korea and honestly wondered why more people didn’t do it. Now, I have a much better (if basic) understanding of all the logistics involved. Crossing the border is only the beginning. Even if a person does finally make their way to South Korea, they face a whole new set of challenges in trying to adjust to a brand new world. This was something I had not previously considered.

I come away from this book feeling like it has changed me, which is why I felt like it was so important to share a review. It has changed my perspective of the world and made me want to learn more about North Korea. The experiences of Mi-Ran, Mrs. Song, Dr. Kim, and others in the book will stay with me for the rest of my life. It’s an important book, and one that I would recommend to everyone.

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One thought on “Book Review: Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

  1. Pingback: My Favorite 2015 Reads | T. A. Hernandez

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