Monday, January 23, 2017

Everything Belongs to Us

Title:  Everything Belongs to Us
Author:  Yoojin Grace Wuertz
Publication Information:  Random House. 2017. 368 pages.
ISBN:  0812998545 / 978-0812998542

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley and the Penguin First to Read free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "They had come to the roof for three days to watch the strike at the Mun-A textile factory."

Favorite Quote:  "But lies were for people who didn't believe in the future. Who saw only an endless stretch of present without consequences or change."

The scion of the elite. The committed student who bears the burden of hope that her success may be a path out of poverty. The manipulative conniving social climber. The eager-to-please, eager-to-fit-in, eager-to-get ahead young man who must decide on the difference between living with principles and fitting in. Jinsun. Namin. Juno. Sunam.

The connection between the four is the country's top university in Seoul, Korea. The meaning of success at the university is to join the professional elite of the country and to lead a life of privilege. Jinsun, the daughter of a wealthy, powerful industrialist, comes from wealth. She shows a disdain of the privileges wealth brings her; she wants to protest against that privilege. Namin's family is making enormous sacrifices such that she may study; her success could change their entire life. As such, she is ambitious and protective of her path out of poverty. Juno wants to solidify his hold on wealth and privilege through a convenient marriage. Sunam is simply trying to find his place, being unable to define it for himself.

Sadly, the character I find most interesting in the book - Namin's sister - is not one of these four and has only a small, side role. Hers is a tale of desperation and sadness. Hers is also the story of a young woman making incredibly difficult choices. The fact that she makes them and follows through is what makes her intriguing. Sadly, the book tells her story only as it touches Namin's, and I am left wanting to know more.

This story is set against a background of student protests and regime crackdowns in 1970s South Korea. In 1961, Major General Park Chung-hee took control of the country in a military coup. He ruled South Korea for the next eighteen years until his assassination in 1979. During this time, Korea was termed a republic but essentially under authoritarian rule. Through the years, students and other advocate for democracy protested the rule. The regime used both arrests and other violent responses to suppress the protests. These protests in 1978 become the setting for this book. This book takes place about one to two years before the time described in Human Acts by Han Kang.

Human Acts bears witness to a history that I might never otherwise have read. It builds a story and finds that balance between history and story. This book unfortunately fails to do the same and is completely not what I expect.

I requested this book because the description speaks about a transformative time in South Korean history and a generation that leads that transformation. I expect politics and history anchored around the story of four young people. What the book delivers, however, is more a soap opera centred around the lives of these four people. It's about who holds the power in a relationship. It's about who is in a relationship with who. It's about the family dynamics of each. It's about the individuals. That could be great because historical fiction needs a strong personal story to anchor the history. Unfortunately, for me, the story completely overtakes the history. I don't get the sense of the story of these young people being the story of a time and a place; it's just their story and not necessarily their role in the history of a nation.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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