Wednesday, July 20, 2011

This Burns My Heart

Almost two years ago or exactly twenty-three months and six days ago I had just read The Calligrapher's Daughter (It was terrific.) and was wondering why after a lifetime of reading I had read so few novels set in Korea or about Koreans and why after a life time working in the book biz I couldn't rattle off at least a dozen titles that fit the Korean bill right off the top of my head. Why? I think the simple answer is the correct answer. Publishers were not interested in Korea.

That lack of interest seems to be changing. Changing very, very slowly but changing. In the past twenty-three months and six days I have read eight novels set in Korea or about Korean Americans. So if I heard about eight books there must have been many others that didn’t cross my path right? How nice is that to know that others are out there waiting for me...

One of the Korean Eight was This Burns My Heart by first time novelist Samuel Park. The story begins just after the end of the Korean War in South Korea. Soo-Ja is the daughter of a factory worker. She knows that tradition dictates that she will be a wife but she is smart and ambitious. Soo-Ja longs to go to school and join the Foreign Service. She is in love with a rebellious, medical student named Yul but is unwilling to go against the wishes of her family or the formalities of her culture and marry for love. Instead she marries Min. Soo-Ja is sure that she can rely on Min’s promise to move to Seoul after the wedding. The move will keep her out of the role of servant in her in-laws home and offer her the opportunity to pursue her dream. Of course Min has lied, is too weak to leave his Father and so Soo-Ja is trapped in a loveless marriage and at the tender mercies of her in-laws.

Korea in the mid 1950’s is on the path toward the future. Ancient cultural moirĂ©s are starting to lose some of their hold. Park very convincingly recreates the culture and attitudes of the times. His Korea is a hard place to live. The old guard is crumbling, the country is divided, they have been through two devastating wars in 15 years, the economy is in shambles and being able to recognize a friend from an enemy is as all important as it is difficult. Over time through necessity, effort and bad luck Park makes Soo-Ja confront these changes. Park’s confident manipulation of Soo-Ja through her youthful assurance to the trials of adulthood and middle age alongside those of South Korea are believable and persuasive.

This Burns My Heart is exceptional novel set in a country I am eager to learn more about. In this book Samuel Park tells us the story of one woman’s life in an emerging nation through unrequited love, loyalty, personal sacrifice, loss, motherhood and ambition. Those are not unique elements. We have all read many novels that cover the same ideas but how often have you read a novel that you cannot imagine being set anywhere else other than where the author has placed it? A novel whose main character experiences all those timeworn historical fiction troubles and yet whose voice is still distinctive and fresh?

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