The Last Exiles
By Ann Shin
Fiction/Park Row Books/Paperback/346 pages/$32.64/Available here
3 out of 5
One of film-maker Ann Shin's most critically acclaimed documentaries is The Defector: Escape From North Korea (2012), which follows two defectors and their smuggler as they journey through peril in their quest for a better life.
Where better, then, for the Korean-Canadian to set her debut novel The Last Exiles than in North Korea?
Based on true events as told to Shin by defectors in interviews, the novel is clearly ambitious.
Shin shines a spotlight on the secretive hermit kingdom and the lives of its people in the years leading up to the death of former leader Kim Jong Il on Dec 17, 2011.
I visited North Korea for a work trip in 2018 and found myself recognising the landmarks and agreeing with some of Shin's observations, such as the wasteful extravagance of Pyongyang's elite class despite rural poverty.
The reader gets poignant glimpses of everyday life in North Korea through the eyes of lovebirds Jin and Suja, university classmates from vastly different backgrounds.
Suja hails from a prominent family in Pyongyang. Her father works as an editor at the state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper.
Jin, however, is from a poor family in rural Yangdok, relying on his book smarts to qualify for a university scholarship.
When he gets thrown into prison for committing a rash act, it catalyses a chain of events, including an improbable jailbreak and his defection to China.
Suja abandons her cloistered life to go in search of him.
Yet, these characters feel one-dimensional in their singular mission to reunite at all costs. Shin does not dwell deeply, if at all, on the moral complexities that would colour their decisions.
The saccharine romance ("He lifted her fingers from his cheek and brought them to his lips and kissed them") feels better suited to a young-adult novel.
It is jarring when juxtaposed with heavy themes of corruption, betrayal and torture.
The novel's title comes from how Jin and Suja see Kim's death as a turning point for their country. They lament the timing of their departures, since they could be "among the last exiles".
Obviously this could not be further from the truth, as Kim's son Kim Jong Un now rules with an iron fist. This is mystifying, given that the novel has, up till this point, sought to be accurate in its atmosphere and scene-setting.
While 10 years is not too long ago, this also feels like a lost opportunity to bring the plot closer to the present day, and to consider what disenchantment under a young leader might look like in an age when gadgets like smartphones are common for North Korea's nouveau riche.
All of this makes me wonder if Shin's research into North Korea stopped with the 2012 documentary. Nonetheless, The Last Exiles still serves as an excellent primer for those who are unfamiliar with the hermit kingdom.
If you like this, read: The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson (Transworld, 2013, $19.26, available here). The novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2013, is set in North Korea and follows everyman Pak Jun Do - a homonym of John Doe - who was picked to serve as a spy and kidnapper for the state, only to defy leader Kim Jong Il in his pursuit of love.