Book Review: ‘Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea’ by Barbara Demick

 I have read very little directly related to North Korea over the years, picking up tidbits here and there referenced in broader works, where I have got the gist of the general history of the nation. But a recent article in New Scientist by an environmental scientist invited to a conference in the country astounded and intrigued me all once. The author described a landscape that has been scavenged bare by generations of a poverty stricken population. I guess the state of the country described by an environmental scientist was something new and appealed to a fellow scientist.

I saw this book on iBooks, and decided to give the preview a try (previewing, one of the reasons why I am an eBook convert of sorts), and after reading I was hooked and purchased the book (instant purchase of books, another reason of conversion).

Barbara tells the story of six North Korean refugees reconstructed from interviews she conducted. The stories are centred upon everyday life, but they are closely interwoven with the larger history of the country. Each story is personal and different, and you feel yourself empathising with this people, no matter how naive, brainwashed or anti-establishment they were. The imagery of the stories is strong; Barbara paints wonderful, yet ugly scenes. You can see the desolated countryside, the decaying silent factories and the gaudy statues.

The narrative takes the reader through the beginnings of the nation, under the rule of Kim Jon Il-Sung, through the rule of his son, Kim Jong-Il and onto Kim Jong-un. You experience the draconian laws effecting the lives of the citizens such as factory workers and a doctor. A highlight is the tales centred around the death of Kim Jong-Il and the fanfare that surrounded it.

A beautiful yet saddening non-fiction book recommended to both those who know little of the history of North Korea and those who may know the history but wonder about the people and their lives. An eye opening account of people living in a  totalitarian state.

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