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Archive: Review - All Woman and Springtime, by Brandon W. Jones

From Asia Literary Review No.23, Spring 2012: Korea

Review by Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore

 

LAST DECEMBER, all eyes turned to North Korea with the news of the dictator Kim Jong-il’s death from a suspected heart attack. As the succession falls on his little-known and untested youngest son Kim Jong-un and the world waits on high alert, the attention is unlikely to diminish.

     Yet, despite all the news coverage, precious little is known about what life is like for those in the so-called ‘Hermit Kingdom’. American author Brandon W. Jones seeks to address the deficiency with his debut All Woman and Springtime. Essentially a coming-of-age tale, the novel follows two young North Korean women as they make the transition from their teenage years to adulthood in the most brutal of circumstances. 

     Gyong-ho and Il-sun work in a clothing factory by day and spend their nights in an orphanage for girls. Each has experienced the savage hand of the state: Il-sun when her outspoken brother ‘disappeared’, leaving her widowed mother to die of a broken heart; Gyong-ho when her family was thrown into a forced labour camp for failing to show proper respect for the hallowed portraits of the Great Leader Kim Il-sung and the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. However, the girls could not be more different. 

     Il-sun is a conventional heroine. Despite the hardships of daily life she has a lust for experience that will not be suppressed. Petulant, independent and devastatingly beautiful, she is the title’s ‘all woman and springtime’. In contrast, Gyong-ho (nicknamed Gi) is the more nuanced and interesting character. A skinny, hunched and conscientious girl, she adores the Great Leader as much as she fears what he represents. And while Il-sun uses their intimacy to confess her crushes on boys and coax Gi into handing over surplus garments to make up her work quota at the factory, Gi harbours a secret, repressed desire for her friend. 

     The arrival of the rebellious, seductive Gianni – a trader of black-market goods – throws their lives into turmoil when he whisks them across the border to the South and into the sex trade. What follows is a vicious ravaging of their innocence, accompanied by suffering far beyond the girls’ worst imaginings. 

     In illuminating both North Korea and the inhumanity of sexual slavery, Jones touches on two important topics; however, the novel would benefit from more fully developed characters, a more convincing denouement and a purging of clichés. Il-sun, for example, is described as having a ‘heart-shaped face’, ‘pouting red lips’ and a full bosom ‘tempting as low-hanging fruit’. 

     All Woman and Springtime is at its best when the action takes place in North Korea. Jones effectively conveys the suffocating nature of daily life under constant surveillance. In one memorable scene at a ‘voluntary’ education meeting, all the factory girls laugh hysterically in unison – afraid that if they stop it would be considered unpatriotic. It’s a disturbingly absurd moment that recalls images of forced crying and wailing at Kim Jong-il’s recent funeral. 

     Jones complements this with small pieces of information: Americans are referred to automatically as Miguk nom (American bastards); Joseon (North Korea) is believed by all who live in it to be the wealthiest and most prosperous nation on earth; people go hungry while food is stockpiled, allegedly for the starving South Koreans; and children in labour camps must betray their friends to the authorities in order to survive. 

     An interesting beginning is undermined by the remaining two-thirds of the novel, which descends into brutal and often gratuitous sexual violence. On the surface, the novel’s sympathy is for the women as they are forced into acts of increasing depravity, but there is a touch of tabloid sensationalism at play: moral outrage to excuse salacious gawking.


 

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