Everything Belongs to Us: A Novel. Yoojin Grace Wuertz. Random House Publishing Group. February 2017. 368 pp. ISBN #: 9780812998542.
Two girls and two boys experience personal and national change in 1978 Seoul, South Korea. Jisun and Namin couldn’t possibly be more different. Jisun comes from an important family in business and she has easy access to money and all the privilege that comes with her father’s power. Namin comes from a poor family, is studying to become a doctor so that her family will eventually be free from poverty. The country is now in a campaign to work hard and make the country prosper economically. That means all must conform to the long hours of work for meager wages; the novel opens with a group of women protesting these conditions. However, in a random moment of rebellious action, they strip themselves of blouses and bras, not realizing their act removes them from the role of honest protest and instead earns them a scandalous repetition. Jisun’s father attempts to have guards watch her every moment but that attempt fails to stop her doing what she wants. What she’s not prepared for is how other protestors now scorn her for her privileged status after she was removed from jail while others had to undergo penalties and social ostracism. Namin at first is delighted to become a friend of Jisun but their relationship evolves with Namin’s realization about status and the personal cost of privilege.
Jisun and Namin then meet Samin and his mentor, Juno. We first meet Samin being forced to carry out ridiculous actions for Juno who has a sadistic streak. Juno knows everyone who is important in the elite group called The Club and initially Samin would do anything to gain entry to this esteemed circle. However, Samin gradually also evolves, through his encounters with Namin, to an independent thinker.
The plot is simple but the way Wuertz depicts the emerging personalities of these four characters is exquisite and mesmerizing. Their lives clearly parallel the changes South Korea is experiencing as it moves from a dictatorship to a form of social democracy. These characters experience questions about personal desires and independence that must find a place within a society that clearly prizes working together for the common good. At the same time, wealth is not a guarantee of security and these characters as well must find a vision and place within that same society to live a meaningful life per the new standards and vision.
Everything Belongs to Us… is compelling historical fiction that this reviewer highly recommends!