Genre: Historical fiction
Stars: 5 out of 5
Synopsis from Goodreads: In 1917, deep in the snowy mountains of occupied Korea, an impoverished local hunter on the brink of starvation saves a young Japanese officer from an attacking tiger. In an instant, their fates are connected—and from this encounter unfolds a saga that spans half a century. In the aftermath, a young girl named Jade is sold by her family to Miss Silver’s courtesan school, an act of desperation that will cement her place in the lowest social status. When she befriends an orphan boy named JungHo, who scrapes together a living begging on the streets of Seoul, they form a deep friendship. As they come of age, JungHo is swept up in the revolutionary fight for independence, and Jade becomes a sought-after performer with a new romantic prospect of noble birth. Soon Jade must decide whether she will risk everything for the one who would do the same for her.
From the perfumed chambers of a courtesan school in Pyongyang to the glamorous cafes of a modernizing Seoul and the boreal forests of Manchuria, where battles rage, Juhea Kim’s unforgettable characters forge their own destinies as they wager their nation’s. Immersive and elegant, Beasts of a Little Land unveils a world where friends become enemies, enemies become saviors, heroes are persecuted, and beasts take many shapes.
I loved this book. I loved it for many reasons but primarily because I really enjoy historical fiction books that can seamlessly tell an amazing story (or stories) along with teaching me something new, and this book does exactly that. Set in Korea in the years between 1917 and 1964 during the Japanese occupation, this book tells several overlapping and intertwined stories of people while presenting history, culture, arts, and landscapes of a Korea on the brink of many changes. The author, Juhea Kim, does this beautifully, so you aren’t even aware you are learning so much about the country as she does it.
Many of the reviews I’ve read commented that this does not seem like a first novel and I would wholeheartedly agree with that. The prose is masterfully crafted, advancing the story while setting the stage for the characters to grow and evolve. The book is also filled with much symbolism – from the tiger who starts the story off, to the cigarette case that comes into Jungho’s possession – lending it the feeling of a folktale with a contemporary twist. The main characters are very well developed and feel like real people, each with their own personality quirks and foibles, and the city of Seoul as it moves into the mid-20th century is so well described, it feels like a character in and of itself.
While not a fast-paced book, I really enjoyed savoring this one, getting to know all of the characters, and seeing their stories through to the end. While not a happy ending for everyone, I loved the final chapter which follows Jade as she begins the last chapter in her life in the mid-1960s, having had a life full of adventure, sorrows, and happiness.
5 out of 5 stars for me. Highly recommended if you enjoy historical fiction, particularly non-Western oriented.