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Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

Updated on November 11, 2014
Cover of Nothing to Envy
Cover of Nothing to Envy | Source

A Depiction of Human Tenacity

I've managed to recently listen to audiobook version Barbara Demick's book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. While I'm not a huge fan of audiobooks, I have to say, the book itself was well written and crafted to the point that even while listening to a monotonous voice I was hooked. Demick's interviews with six refugees from Chongjin, North Korea were extremely detailed and provided a fresh and internal perspective of the lives of average citizens in North Korea.

The book does not follow an interview format. Thankfully, Demick managed to create her interviews in a narrative form, ensuring a specific topic for every chapter, and then introducing her characters into the mix. From the death of Kim Il Sung in 1994 to the famine and malnutrition spreading throughout the country, Demick portrays them all from the eyes of the people inside the country at the time; not the media's dramatization or assessment of such events, the truth of those who lived there and their daily lives.

The six refugees, whose lives are chronicled throughout the book , include: Mrs. Song, a housewife, Dr. Kim, a female doctor, Oak-Hee, a rebellious daughter, Mi-Ran, a daughter of a South Korean POW, Jun-Sang, a student and Mi-Ran's boyfriend, and Kim Hyuck, a street boy. These are ordinary people living ordinary lives in the oppressive thumb of dictatorship in North Korea. While it's easy to judge a country based on news feeds and media, it's fascinating to see it as a commoner , enabling us to understand a day in the life.

For someone who doesn't read much non fiction, Nothing to Envy managed to maintain my complete attention. Demick's detailed descriptions made me feel like I was there in the hospital with Dr. Kim, witnessing the deaths of malnourished children, or sneaking on a date in the blackness of a North Korean night with Mi-Ran and Jun-Sang, or bravely escaping this human nightmare with Mrs. Song. I read about these ordinary lives, these ordinary people, and I am amazed by their diligence and perseverance to continue life as they know it. Nothing to Envy is a book that allows us, to not only be grateful of the simple freedoms we have, but to remember the human spirit, that humanity's greatest enemy and ally is itself, and that even the most seemingly insignificant and boring life, may not be so ordinary.


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