Jia is a novel about North Korea written by a South Koren who has worked extensively with North Korean refugees living in China. The novel arose from Kim's desire to tell about the life of a North Korean everyman, or everywoman in this case. This definitely shows. In the book, Kim doesn't ever use any stylistic devices or flowery language; in fact, it is almost as straightforward as a newspaper article. The book is written in first-person from Jia's perspective, and in the beginning she is so simple and direct it feels disorienting. However, the persevering reader will soon adjust, as Jia's story becomes more intriguing.
It opens with Jia and her older sister living with their paternal grandparents in the mountains, near a camp. They are political exiles (labeled as "commonly bad"), and neither Jia or her sister have any idea what happened to their parents. Eventually, Jia's grandmother explains that her father was a low-class college teacher while her mother was a high-class dancer. They fell in love and married against the maternal grandparents' wishes. Jia's father became more and more critical of the government, and he disappeared while her mother was pregnant with her. A few days later, Jia's father, mother and paternal grandparents were put on a military truck and dropped off in the mountains. One day, when Jia is still young, her grandparents get the chance to send her to the capital, Pyong Yang. There, they hope that her maternal grandparents will take her in and give her good opportunities. Instead, she ends up in an orphanage, from which she is taken at sixteen in order to become a dancer.
From then on, Jia's life is closely tied to the welfare of the government. As the Nineties continue and bad flooding occurs, life in North Korea becomes worse and worse. Finally, Jia decides to try and sneak across the border to China. I won't give away any of the major plot points, or the ending, but it's an interesting look at what happens when a totalitarian, communist state fails to look after its people.
Jia meets many people, and it's clear that she meets them because the author, Kim, wants to show the reader the variety of lifestyles in North Korea. Not to say that these characters are unrealistic, it's just that they're a bit one-dimensional. It's almost as if Kim couldn't be bothered to flesh them out, because she was too busy telling the readers the story of North Korea. Additionally, there are disorienting jumps in time: Jia will gloss over years of her life, making the reader wonder what happened. Kim is a tell rather than show kind of author; any emotions or development Jia experiences are immediately explained to the reader. There aren't any subtleties in the book, but since it's more of a political novel than anything else, that's perhaps to be expected.
Kim is very precise in describing North Korea, from the landscapes to the buildings to the way its citizens are and were expected to conduct themselves. From the Kim Jung buttons to the strict choreography of North Korea's celebrations, Kim relentlessly builds a picture of a government desperate to regulate every aspect of its people's lives.
This is an interesting book that opens a window to such a closed-off country, and it seems an accurate depiction of what life is like for North Korean refugees in China. I hesitate to call it a novel, however, because it lacks any kind of emotional resonance. A valuable read for anyone interested in totalitarian societies.