Just for once, I would like to start a review from the flaws of a book. I think that "Nothing to Envy" gives me the perfect opportunity for doing that. So, let's start with my criticism, then. Ordinary Lives in North Korea the subtitle said. But these are not ordinary lives at all! You would be unfair with the people portrayed here calling them "ordinary". My dear editors of Barbara Demick how did you dare? Luckily some other editors decided to replace that "ordinary" with "real" which is the word appearing on my edition of this book. Well done!
Alright, that said, let's go straight to the next point. Which is an unusual one, I reckon: this book has no other flaw. Or at least I was not able to find anything else here which is not perfectly placed, well documented, interesting and informative to read and, on the top of all, extremely well written. In short, "Nothing to Envy" is what we may call a masterpiece, particularly if one considers the complexity of its topic.
And mind you! I'm not that easy to convince in using this term, especially while dealing with a book written by a journalist. I didn't like a bit what Åsne Seierstad wrote about Afghanistan and always found Anna Politkovskaja's prose very heavy to stand although admiring her for what she did and when and where.
Unlike what happened with Seierstad and Politkovskaja, I had no idea who Barbara Demick was before jumping into this book. At first, what interested me was more the main topic of "Nothing to Envy" than the pen who wrote it. And, quite snobbishly, I thought that a foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times was likely to write in a not so engaging style. How wrong was this silly prejudice of mine.
I found what Mrs Demick did here amazing if not prodigious for a person who, after all, was allowed to visit North Korea only twice by a regime that defining "communist" would be reductive.
It's the old toxic mixture of totalitarism, nationalism, warmongering and self proclaimed racial superiority which made North Korea a land of oppressed termites ruled by a caste of bureaucrats and a dinasty of self-proclaimed gods.
Overall, this is an awful country where to live. Perhaps the worst country around. No questions about it. A country much worse than many could imagine.
And yet, despite greyness and famine, indoctrination and repression North Koreans are real people.
This is exactly what Barbara Demick shows us here. "Nothing to Envy" is not a history book, but a book about human beings. And it's human beings who make history through their personal stories, although many history books omit to mention them citing only leaders and dictators. Kim li-sung and Kim Jong-il are not the core of this book, just its sharp frame.
The choice of giving voice to six among the hundreds of the North Korean defectors she met while in South Korea was good but not that revolutionary in itself. There was a clear risk of lingering into personal lives in a morbid way while taking the chance of writing down a pamphlet praising the virtues of the "American imperialist bastards" and treating North Korea as a dangerous masochist little country orbiting in the "axis of evil" with some queasy dives into its politics.
Barbara Demick took the Democratic People's Republic of Korea quite seriously and with a respect and a depth of sight that left me astonished, but without aiming at the head of the pyramid. In fact, she did, quite the opposite narrating the lives of common people deprived of all privileges.
The author manages to provide factual information delivering personal stories so perfect in the way they portray the unbelievable struggle and difficulties experienced by generations of North Koreans that cannot fail to impress anyone.
There is a colossal work behind and beyond this book which is essential in giving a very convincing background to all that Barbara Demick writes about. And the six real lives or (extra)ordinary people she chose to write about became quite soon characters I sympathized with and whose vicissitudes I was more and more eager to know.
You have what really counts here.
Twenty years of life in North Korea as seen from one of its most important and secluded towns, Ch'ŏngjin, up in the north. A place so poor and remote that even grim Pyongyang looked like Heaven from there not to mention the splendor of a relatively free and rich China.
But Barbara Demick hasn't forgotten to mention the way North Korean defectors are welcomed and seen abroad, investigating on the uncomfortable sense of common and yet separated belonging between them and the South Koreans.
Well, it seems like I could write for hours just for listing down the merits and importance of this book and perhaps I will go ahead, later on. What I can tell you now is that "Nothing to Envy" is a jewel and probably the best book you will come across for a long while. I could bet on this. Just get it and let me know. I grant you that you will feel the urge of talking about this book.