The Orphan Master's Son will undoubtedly be one of my top books of the year, and part of that is because it exposed me to life inside North Korea--something which I knew nothing about. Demick's Nothing To Envy doesn't have the literary flair of the fictional Orphan Master's Son, but it's a just as engrossing nonfiction account of six North Korean lives.
North Korea is still almost completely cut off from the rest of the world, so all of Demick's characters are defectors currently living in South Korea. Considering the relatively small number of defectors (and the shockingly small number of defectors living in South Korea), her interviewees are certainly unusual, but the tales they have to tell of life inside North Korea seem representative.
The book traces about a fifteen-year time period in the subjects' lives, from the modest but relative comfort under Kim Il-sung to the horrific famine that weakened even the firmest supporters of Communism and Kim Jong-il, and ending with the subjects' lives in modern capitalist South Korea. It's easy to see how indoctrinated the citizens were with love of their land and leaders and hatred of democracy, South Korea, and the U.S. After all, they exist in a bubble in which no information enters or leaves. For example, one interviewee, Jun-sang, was among the most privileged in North Korea and received a top education, but he had never used the Internet before coming to South Korea.
What's most horrifying are the characters' descriptions of their lives during the famine, when almost no one had enough to eat. An entire generation of North Korean children have now grown up stunted from malnourishment. Mrs. Song watched her mother-in-law, husband, and son all waste away within three years. To go from a society in which everything is provided by the government--your food, job, and housing (citizens essentially received no salary)--to a point where you must forage just to get through a day must have been jarring to the extreme.
Nothing to Envy compliments The Orphan Master's Son well, and I appreciated its personal glimpse into a variety of lives in North Korea. Demick tells the stories from her subjects' point of view, making everything seem immediate. It's hard to believe the book describes events of only a few years ago (rather than decades), but as Demick points out, North Korea is stuck in the 1960s while everyone else around it progresses.
The book is highly readable and accessible, covering both the good and the bad of North Korea and its people. I like that she also discusses the nuances of living as a defector; life for the interviewees is better in some ways and worse in others, as there's no easy solution for this strange country and its citizens.