Nothing To Envy by Barbara Demick — Reviewed by Guy Portman
Published in 2009, Nothing To Envy is a novelisation of interviews with various North Korean defectors, hailing from Chongjin, a bleak, northern industrial city, far from the country’s Potemkin village capital, Pyongyang. There is particular emphasis on the famine of the late 1990s, which saw the nation’s precarious economic system devastated, culminating in a mass exodus to China, some of the escapees making it as far as the Promised Land, South Korea.
The interviewed defectors include Mrs Song, a pro-regime housewife, who suffered so dramatically during the famine that she was forced to reconsider her principles. There is also former street boy and cross-border trader Kim Hyuck, reformed ardent loyalist Dr Kim, and teacher Mi-ran whose Songbun (social status) was far inferior to her secret boyfriend.
Providing fascinating insights into the hermit kingdom, Nothing To Envy is an engrossing text that effortlessly captures the lives of its subjects. The personal details are sufficient to elicit sympathy, but never to the point of being excessive or banal. Despite the immense tribulations the interviewees’ have suffered, the author never intrudes with her opinions, nor does she adopt a didactic tone. This reader has read numerous books about North Korea — the good, the bad and the ugly. This is the best.