Tendrils of Life. R. Owen Choi. Princeton Falcon Press. July 2012. 428 pp. pbk. ISBN#: 9780985728601.
To many the Korean War remains a distant memory, except for those American soldiers who fought in the war and passed on their knowledge to their children and grandchildren. Now we have a potent novel that explores what happened to the Korean people before and during this war, how the Japanese, Chinese and North Koreans forced Koreans to turn against Koreans. We read a story of the depths of despair from starvation, filth, disease, rape, murder, but we also have here a story replete with the deepest love, cooperation, compassion, and most of all hope that drives men and women forward to obtain dreams of a better life.
Jimin and Sinman are the protagonist and antagonist respectively who are deadly enemies not realizing how deeply they are truly connected. The novel opens with Jimin, his sister Misern, their mother and father leaving the island of Ockdo, a remote island in southern Korea. The father comes briefly and infrequently and leaves for long periods of time. They arrive in a communist-occupied Seoul in 1950 before the war begins and they live with starvation, fear of the communists who randomly arrest, torture and kill anyone and everyone for the flimsiest reason. On and on this horror continues, with Jimin and Misern’s mother eventually attacked and dying from her wounds. Sinman hates Jimin, a family clan warfare whose origin is gradually revealed throughout the entire novel. Sinman has money and bribes whoever he needs; his goal is to kill Jimin, but after much suffering Jimin and Misern decide to return to Ockdo.
Little do they know that they are about to begin a horrendous, long journey which will be full of hate and love, starvation and food provided by kind-hearted Koreans, and so so much more than this review can adequately convey. Sinman hates his father but must comply with his commands due to their true origins as poverty-stricken peasants; trying to be what one can never be is what tips the mental imbalance of Sinman and his father. But Jimin doesn’t know this and escapes before he can come to harm; later he will have one final confrontation.
American soldiers are depicted quite poorly here; they speak of their disdain for the country that they are risking their lives for. They bomb cities and towns, never realizing that the Communist Chinese have hidden in the hills and caves. Communists cannot be trusted for one second. Sora becomes Jimin’s lover, introducing a new type of relationship into Jimin’s life. Other characters like Teacher Yang appear when just needed, wisely advising Jimin how to proceed when his fears and ignorance would threaten to destroy his dream.
So much more could be said about this surprising, fascinating novel that has received little attention and deserves so much more. It is well-researched, perhaps one-sided in several places, but still reflective of the multiple points of view regarding that long ago, almost forgotten nightmare period in Korean history. Highly recommended historical fiction!