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All Woman and Springtime

Although somewhat comparable to "Memoirs of a Geisha," this tale of North Korean women forced into the sex trade is a darker, crueler story.

By Terry Hong / May 3, 2012

All Woman and Springtime By Brandon W. Jones Algonquin, 384 pp.

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Just as North Korea’s presence in news headlines has proliferated of late – thanks to the installation of the third-generation round-faced despot; nuclear tests; failed missiles; blatant threats – book shelves, too, have seen an increase in North Korea-themed titles, predominantly written by non-Korean authors.

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In the non-fiction section, if Guy Delisle’s 2005 graphic memoir, “Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea,” was entertainingly surreal, then Blaine Harden’s “Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West,” which debuted last month, proved to be the most inhumanely devastating. Barbara Demick’s lauded 2010 National Book Award nonfiction finalist, “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea,” offered something in between uncomfortably comic and unrelenting shockfest.

In fiction, if Jeff Talarigo’s 2008 “The Ginseng Hunter” was the most luminous about tortured North Korean lives, then Adam Johnson’s stupendous recent bestseller “The Orphan Master’s Son” was surely the most harrowing. Somewhere within that horror spectrum emerges the latest North Korea-focused title, All Woman and Springtime, by Brandon W. Jones, a debut novel out this month.

In a North Korean orphanage, two teenage girls become unlikely friends. Withdrawn Gyung-ho (named after a boy because her parents so wanted a son) is her family’s only survivor of prison camp. Irreverent Il-Sun, who would have had a privileged life had her mother not died, is for Gyung-ho the quintessential “all woman and springtime, the embodiment of feminine beauty.” 

Under the portraits of Great Leader Kim Il-sung and his son Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, the girls toil as trouser seamstresses. In the book’s opening paragraph, Gyung-ho intently watches the “paradox of sewing, that such brutality could bind two things together.” That “methodic violence” Gyung-ho observes will play out through almost 400 pages, leaving such desolation that even the deus ex machina-ending – in equal measures longed-for and implausible – will provide little relief.

Il-Sun’s rebellious need to escape the daily drudgery of the orphanage and factory lands her into the arms of a less-than-honorable young man. She’s forced to flee – with Gyung-ho literally in tow – setting in motion a tortuous odyssey of sexual slavery first in Seoul, then in Seattle, Washington. Before they cross the DMZ, the two become three, joined by brash young Cho, already an experienced “flower-selling girl” – a prostitute – at 19. Before they cross the Pacific, they will add another when brave Jasmine, already trapped for five years in the heinous business, is ordered to indoctrinate the new girls into their dead-end future.

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