In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom

by Yeonmi Park (or Park Yeon-mi)

An autobiographical account of a young North Korean girl’s early life experiences and subsequent defection.  Part One deals with her early life in North Korea until her escape, aged 13, to China.  There she lived for two years, effectively as a slave to her traffickers, until she and her mother finally managed to escape via Mongolia to South Korea.  Part Three deals with her initial impressions of South Korea and her gradual adaptation and decision to become an activist.

The storytelling is not as good as it could be, but the story is convincing precisely because it is real.  What stands out most is Yeonmi’s energy and courage in the face of almost insurmountable obstacles.  She trusts in the goodness of people, even after having witnessed some of the most heartless, cruel behaviour imaginable.

Her decision to tell her story is perhaps the bravest act of all.  She is well aware of the risks to herself and to her family – but decides that not to tell the story would be worse.

A Spool of Blue Thread

by Anne Tyler

The second book I have read by this author.  How I came by this book is a silly story, but I feel the need to tell it.  I was about two-thirds of the way through Patrick Gale’s A Place called Winter, and put the book ready to take with me to the hairdresser.  When I got into town, I realised I had left the book behind.  Never mind, I had a bit of time in hand, and as I walked past a charity bookstore on the way in, I decided to go in and look for something to read.  I had intended to read this book at some point, so it was an obvious choice.  Rather than spend 20 minutes reading the hairdresser’s magazines while my hair colour was settling, I would far rather get to grips with a good novel!

It was a rewarding decision.  Anne Tyler is able to get right under the skin of families with all their nuances of relationships, behaviours, and traditions.  In this novel she deals with the relationships between adult children and their increasingly frail parents; between siblings, whether related by blood or adoption; between in-laws; and of course between husband and wife.  As the stories of at least three generations of the same family unravel, the reader gets a glimpse of just how complex family life really is; and how apparently random the decisions that bring us together.

Tyler begins this novel by relating the two ‘stories’ that are most important in the Whitshank family tradition, and hints that all families have such stories. In fact, these two stories are not the most significant in the history of the family, as the reader later finds out.  But they are the ones that the family likes to recall.

One scene that more particularly resonates is where the teenage Abby visits Red’s parents’ house to provide moral support for her then boyfriend, a friend of Red’s who has been drafted in to help fell a tree in preparation for Red’s sister Merrick’s wedding.  Abby observes Red’s parents, and the way in which Red and his somewhat difficult father relate to each other.  She immediately sees in Red a determination and steadiness (my words) that her current boyfriend lacks.  And makes the decision that will shape her life.

A masterful storyteller.  I can’t wait to read more by this author.

A Place called Winter

by Patrick Gale

A departure from his books set in the present day or recent past and based in his beloved West Cornwall, this story is set mainly in Canada in the late Edwardian era.  It is the imagined story of Harry Cane, Gale’s real-life great grandfather.  Obliged to leave England and a comfortable middle-class family life, he sets out for Saskatchewan in Canada to begin a new life as a pioneer farmer.

Gale knows how a focus on detail: the intricacies of the farming life, the tools used, the tasks that define the day and the year of Harry and his fellow farmers.  It is one of the things that makes Gale’s writing, and this story in particular, so appealing .  The other thing is his sensitive portrayal of the characters that populate his novels.  Yes, there is an exploration of sexuality, and Gale recognises that much of what Harry, as a gay man in the early twentieth century, may have felt and experienced must have been impossible to put into words, because appropriate language was not available to his character.  Gale faithfully describes Harry’s experiences and feelings as they might have appeared to him.

The other main characters in this novel are equally strong and believable: the taciturn, strong and caring Paul; the practical and unconventional Petra; Harry’s in-laws, the Wells family, who dominate the first part of the novel and show a busy, bustling and matriarchal family life reminiscent of a Woolf novel.

The ‘baddie’, Troels Munck, on the other hand comes across almost as an ogre.  His evil nature is palpable in the way he looks, sounds and behaves every time we encounter him in the novel.  He is a classic bully, and somehow larger than life – physically as well as metaphorically.  And this is indeed a powerful way of portraying him, as bullies do loom large in the lives of those who have the misfortune to encounter and be pursued by them.  Munck, not content with the opportunistic lifestyle that seems to meet his needs very well, goes out of his way to hurt others.

Interspersed with the narrative is a flash-forward to Harry’s experiences in a therapeutic community setting, where people with various kinds of mental disorders (as they were then perceived) are allowed relative freedoms in an experimental environment.  The treatment he receives here is contrasted to the more conventional asylum therapies of the time: immersion in baths, wrapping in cold towels, sedation and restraints of various kinds.

I have not quite finished reading this book – am saving the last couple of chapters for later today or tomorrow.  In many ways I don’t want to reach the end of a story that has held me captivated throughout.  Gale at his storytelling best.