last night at le salon pamflet…

The book: Nothing to Envy: Real lives in North Korea (Granta)

The author: LA Times foreign correspondent Barbara Demick

What: Award-winning investigation into what daily life is really like in the world’s most cut-off country

Where: hostess-mostest Marianna‘s place in Dalston

Early verdict: NTE was our first book club experiment with narrative non-fiction and it won’t be the last. Perhaps more than any other book we’ve chosen over the past six months or so, there was a definite consensus amongst the salon ladies that this was a harrowing read – but still an important book by an indisputably accomplished author. It combines personal stories with an historical/political context and statistics so that you get ‘characters’ and a page-turning narrative but are also fully informed on the facts and figures (bit like Wild Swans said Phoebe).

What we liked: Most impressively Nemick was able to build up trusting relationships with the several North Korean defectors whose life stories she tells through its pages. We felt as readers that we could get as close to the truth as we dared through the strength of her research, empathy and journalistic prowess.

What we learned: It’s well known in the West that this is a country wracked with perpetual hunger and shrouded in darkness when the sun goes down (there’s no/highly unreliable electricity), but Kemick goes much deeper. She reveals how they conduct love affairs, what women do about periods, the value of beauty, the black market in north Korean women sold across the border into china, their government’s export trade in drugs, the UN rice which is sold rather than distributed to the people who need it and the young doctors who have to forage in the ransacked mountains for medical ingredients and sacrifice their own skin and blood to patients.


We wanted the survivors who lived to escape North Korea and share their stories with Barbara for the book to have happy endings once they get to the South. However, the strife of their years in the north leaves them struggling to integrate into the bizarre landscape of a country that’s 60 years too far into the future for them and there are dispiriting stories of scammers who trick the new arrivals out of the cash the SK government grants them to make a fresh start.

Soundtrack: mostly pulp, but just as we are discussing the legacy and failure of communism in the east, serge gainsbourg’s je t’aime breathily slipped onto the itunes shuffle and yes – we were distracted.
Non-book-related chat: lengthy, paranoid chat about British agriculture as we wondered WHAT IF the UK went into an NK-style lockdown, a ‘do we need the orange prize’ debate (yes!) which led on to discussion of how there’s no male/female director categories in the Oscars and how men can’t have babies and can a woman write the Great American Novel? We might have a lot of questions but we definitely don’t have all the answers!

More info: After reading NTE we felt fully-informed but also a bit frustrated, so if you’re going to give it a go (and we’d definitely recommend it!) it’s worth noting that there are links to several human rights organisations who support defectors and help to keep the North Korean situations in the headlines on Barbara’s website.

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