Princess Bari, by Hwang Sok-yong

Trigger warning for rape.

For a girl born in North Korea, the protagonist of Princess Bari, by Hwang Sok-yong and translated by Sora Kim-Russell, has a very magical life. Perhaps it’s because she’s the seventh child in the family. Perhaps it’s because of her grandmother’s stubborn belief in her own shamanistic abilities. Whatever it is, Bari’s life ends up following the arc of the legendary Princess Bari of Korean myth. She suffers many tragedies and goes through many physical hardships, but she also ends up bringing healing and peace to a lot of people in the far away land where she settles.

Bari had a charmed life (again, surprising for a North Korean) until a devastating famine hits in 1994. Her father’s position in the local government fails to protect them when her maternal uncle runs up a huge gambling debt and defects to South Korea. The family is broken up and Bari loses her parents and her sisters. She even loses her beloved grandmother when she, her slightly older sister, and her grandmother flee across the Tumen River into China.

There are numerous elements of mysticism or fantasy in Princess Bari. Bari has abilities that just don’t happen in the normal world. These abilities help save her life more than once as Bari has to live as an undocumented immigrant in northern China and then in London. Her grandmother and her lost dog, Chilung, appear frequently in her dreams to warn her of dangers and give advice. Bari also travels through Korean mythology in those dreams as she followed in the footsteps of her namesake. I loved all of these mystical touches. They turn what might have been a relentless parade of miseries into a quest worthy of being retold to future generations. Princess Bari constantly shifts from the fantastic to the mundane. There are ships of the dead in one of Bari’s realities; her other reality has nail parlors and immigration raids. The shifts in realities are smoothly translated by Kim-Russell, who does a marvelous job preserving Bari’s voice throughout the book. A few terms are left untranslated from Korean (mostly words for food that would have sounded weird if they were translated into English). Personally, I love it when translators do this.

In another kind of novel, Bari’s story might have been about the need for a safe haven. Instead, it is a story about the endless whys asked by the suffering. Why do some people suffer so much in life? What is the point of deaths in famine or religious wars? What is the point of being a good person in a frequently evil world? There are religious characters in this book, but I found the overall conclusions of Princess Bari—both in the sense of the book’s ending and in the answers it gives to the bigger questions the book asks—to be more philosophical and much more honest than I expected. This was truly an incredible and moving read.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.

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