Can I be honest? I don’t engage a whole lot on Goodreads. I hope to eventually, but for right now it serves as an online shelf. Several days ago I stumbled upon the Goodreads Choice Awards and skimmed some of the entries – ever on the hunt for my next great read. Only a couple stood out to me, and I added them to my list. The Girl with Seven Names was one of the books.
This is the memoir of a girl-turned-woman who defected from North Korea and eventually went through the process again to get her family out.
Lee’s story is neither sensationalized or diluted. She picks her scenes with care and thought. The quick chapters flit from time to year to event to country to country, but there is no lack of gravity in the pages. Readers are conscious throughout the book that everything comes at great risk – from her weeping performances to her shoe choices to her father’s last gift to her indulgences to her isolation – regardless of what part of her story the reader is encountering, there is a palpable sense that how she handles the risk is critical.
What was particularly powerful about Lee’s story as told in these pages was the depth of her reflection and perception. While she honestly provided details of near-misses and bad choices, she also included throughout the story what she felt, thought, and learned without droning on or fishing for pity. The reader is confident to go with Lee because Lee is intelligent, resourceful, and clever.
I read some Goodreads reviews that suggested her story was a bit charmed. She came from a more distinguished North Korean family – one with good songbun – that afforded her some privileges and access. I have not read other defectors’ stories (though I understand there are a few on the market), but it seems to me that the social status that she benefited from meant that she (and her family) had more to lose. Either way, this shouldn’t be a valid critique – regardless of which memoir you read, you will always find someone more and less fortunate than yourself. You will find that true whether you write a memoir or not. Lee seemed to anticipate this reaction and included several scenes from her early childhood forward where she reflects on her growing realization about and disillusionment with life in North Korea and the distinctions between people. By including these moments – sifting through a childhood of memories and selecting the ones to best fit her story arc – she accepts her status and uses it to give voice to others. She is, as the writing in this memoir reflects, perceptive and critical (though her options for voicing her observations were non-existant while in North Korea). Lee demonstrated considerable courage both in defecting, navigating the ordeal to get her family out, and in then going public with her story in myriad avenues.
Lee loved and lost along the way. She worked and skimped and saved. She wrestled with a whiplash of value conflation. She escaped bullies and brokers and traffickers along the way. She learned and adapted. She helped and accepted help. But this isn’t a fairytale and though it has a happy ending for her, what is clear is that it is not happy for many others. I appreciated Lee’s honesty about her love for North Korea – it is her home and a big part of who she is. She wants it to be better. Telling her story is one way to work towards that end.
The Girl with Seven Names is a fascinating, well-paced glimpse into a country few will ever have access to other than through a book; it is a powerful survival story; and it is, above all, a story about the strengths of the individual and the family.