So… I was at Costco and had time to kill while others were looking at clothing. I haven’t bought books at Costco before but it’s a nice and curated collection they carry. All the books are displayed with the cover up and I am free to judge books by their covers. This cover, obviously, drew me in and I read the back for more information. Then I added it to my request list at the library.
Brandon W Jones’ All Woman and Springtime was published last year in May, a debut novel for Jones. The novel’s main protangonists are Il-sun and Gyong-Ho (known as Gi) who are orphans and friends toiling away in a garment factory. Their personalities couldn’t be more different – Il-sun was very privileged but losing both of her parents also meant loss of her status and prospects (songbun). She dreams of regaining her glory and is often insolent about her circumstances but gets away with it. Gi came from a modest family and it seems she accidentally turned her parents in to the authorities as being less than prostrate and loyal to the Leaders. She was orphaned while they were all in labour camp where unspeakable things happen to her. For Il-sun, the orphanage and nearing emancipation and factory work was about all she could legitimately obtain but she reached for more.
In dreaming of a different and less drab future, Il-sun befriends Gianni, who tricks Il-sun to flee across the border, thinking she has been accused of being anti-revolutionary. Coincidentally, Gi displeases the factory foreman who wants to take her as a wife and gets tossed in with Gianni’s group crossing the border. It turns out that Gianni sold the girls to a South Korean brothel and that is merely the beginning.
While in North Korea, each of the girls seem a little defiant of the pervasive doctrine and propaganda. But once you put them in South Korea – a technicality; otherwise, they were locked up and did not go outside – you see how strongly they believe their teachings that South Korea is to be feared for being imperialist and they find solace in North Korean ways. What we accept at face value as affluence has no context to them because they thought the gray state of North Korea was utopia. You kind of root for their ingrained beliefs to be chipped away.
The girls have to work to pay back the price paid for them, pay for their living costs and pay for the process to obtain documentation. Undocumented, they are convinced their work options are limited to the brothel, that they would be persecuted if they are caught by South Korean authorities or Americans. They are told they can safely but slowly earn money giving peep shows online or entertain “private clients”. Some parts of this exposition reads a bit like a how-to manual on the Internet porn industry.
Il-sun is the character you want to hate – beautiful but a conflicted mess who got them in the situation. Gi, who is plain-looking and been through the sadistic torture she has survived, loves Il-sun and almost worships her friend who appears “all woman and springtime.” While Il-sun is an open book and normally impulsive person, as a defense mechanism, Gi can retreat from the evils of the world by performing complex calculations in her head.
It’s a tale of the two girls’ fortunes *** spoiler alert *** and at first it looks like Gi will not survive, she who is traumatized by being tortured in labour camp cannot be around men. At first, Il-sun shows inordinate promise in the industry and is a star. But Il-sun does not have a coping mechanism and is the one introduced to heroin. When they are in the American brothel, vain about her beauty, she devises the plan to take down the madam by being the most successful girl and win the favour of the owner, but her plan backfires when the madam retaliates through her weakness (heroin addiction) and maintains control. With an unlimited supply of heroin, Il-sun crashes and fades and is kicked out of the brothel. Meanwhile, Gi is powerless to help or even talk to Il-sun and the girls’ relationship is strained. In contrast, Gi maintains a low profile, is not overly popular with clients and seems traumatized by the work but the trauma is attenuated by losing herself in calculations and working out theorems. At first I thought both girls would survive, together, and other characters would fade. After the expulsion, the point of view of the narrative switches to and stays with Gi such that we don’t ever know what Il-sun experienced on the streets of Seattle. When the Asian gangs start warring with each other, an opportunity arises for Gi to escape and that marks the beginning of the last part of the novel of her survival in the United States.
So what is the point of creating a character who is a mathematical genius? Retreating into her mind is her way of escaping the horrors of her life and she returns reserved and a little traumatized but substance-free. Her ability extends to include the ability to detect patterns in spoken English she hears on television she watches every day during her down time. When she escapes, she can communicate better than Il-sun would have. Her thirst for knowledge keeps her out of trouble when she is homeless – she discovers the Seattle Public Library and bountiful mathematical texts. And in a fantastical turn of events, at the public library, she meets and befriends a math professor and she is firmly in with the right crowd.
I am so impressed when I learn that something other than a semi-autobiographical story is an author’s debut, more so when it deviates so much from the author’s life. This was a really compelling story and I enjoyed telling NPY about it along the way. I think Jones might have struggled with how much to write in detail as I can imagine that labour camp and the sex trade is worse than he delved into. In a work of fiction, it is more important to create characters you want to continue reading about and he did in Il-sun and Gi. I wondered at the warning preceding the novel that the mature subject level might make it unsuitable for younger readers – it was an easy read not just with an interesting story but the writing might be mistaken to be targeted for a younger audience. If it was at all, was the message, “Don’t do drugs. Find something healthy to obsess over.”?