Every Falling Star by Sungju Lee
I received this book via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks so much to the publisher and the website for granting me the opportunity to read an ARC of this.
Sungju Lee’s Every Falling Star is a true story; not only that, but it is a memoir. And reviewing memoirs is always tricky- you are not afforded the luxury of judging plot and characters as if they are fictional people. You are not given the comfort of saying “this was too much to handle” because the truth is, it isn’t too much. It’s all real. I have never reviewed a memoir before, and I will try to do it with the sensitivity and poise Sungju’s story deserves.
Because despite my final rating of three stars, I maintain that his is an incredibly important, incredibly disturbing story about a world that reads more like science-fiction, dystopian than realistic fiction. It’s an incredibly moving story about one child’s perseverance, his determination to do something with everything thrown at him. A story about love, family, friendship, hope and pushing through. A story so jarring and alarming that it makes your problems in your own life seem like blessings. Because here we are, worrying about lipstick that’s too expensive, or not enough coffee in the mornings- and there Sungju was, consuming bugs, salt and water simply so he could live, burying dear friends, wondering if either of his parents were alive.
Sungju Lee had a good life in Pyongyang- he was in a good school, had a nice house, his parents were well-off and had a wonderful relationship with him. Every night, Sungju would lie next to his pet dog, talking about all the things on his mind. Until one day, something his father did got them kicked out off Pyongyang. He loses his home, his dog, his life; Sungju and his parents move north. Life up north is completely different from what our protagonist was used to – they don’t have much to eat, and the people in his school talk about violence and executions. Sungju comes to realize that the country he had grown up to worship and adore isn’t as perfect as he had once thought. One thing leads to another, and Sungju finds himself on the streets at the tender age of twelve. He falls in with a gang, pickpocketing, stealing, smoking and drinking, getting into fights merely to survive. Sungju takes his readers – step-by-step – on a harrowing journey, from his good life to a point where he might as well not be living at all, until he finally escapes North Korea and makes a life far from our very own dystopia.
Like I said before, this is an incredibly important book. North Korea is a fascinating enigma; shut off from global society, virtually impossible to get into without an organization, virtually impossible to meet someone who escaped its confines. Your only information comes from documentaries and the media- and who knows how reliable they are? This is where Sungju comes in- told with such honest simplicity, his first-hand account of everything he witnessed as a teenager and a child- it’s so important. I cannot stress that enough. He offers us tidbits of North Korean history, and unapologetically uses cultural phrases, language and folklore that breathes life and authenticity t0 his story. His portrayal of the plight of the Korean people was vivid and empathetic.
However, I feel like the writing was a little simplistic for the heaviness of the story. I know liking or disliking writing style is entirely subjective, so I’m not going to say that it was bad or good- just that I kept waiting for something more. At first, I assumed that the simplicity was complementing our protagonist’s childhood, and I had anticipated that it would transition to something less simple as the MC grew older, but that never happened. Despite being horrified and fascinated by the story, the writing didn’t pull me in like I had hoped it would. Moreover, there were so many characters- all of them with such amazing, interesting stories and personalities, but their actual character didn’t shine. This book relies heavily on dialogue, so the voices of most characters blurred together, and despite my interest in them, I didn’t feel like I knew them.
But despite my problems, I could never discourage people from reading Sungju’s story. I can’t even imagine how hard it must have been for him to write down, in such detail, all the tragedies that have dotted his life. I cannot imagine the things he saw, despite having just read them. It all felt like some crazy film playing before my eyes, some horrifying post-apocalyptic society where everything and everyone is falling apart. I hope Sungju is doing well, wherever he is, and I hope the people of North Korea – who are going through experiences so similar – make it out of this dystopia, safe and healthy.