Sunday, April 27, 2008

Dealing with frayed family ties in Kim Jong-il's North Korea

Jeff Talarigo has worked as a teacher in Japan for 15 years, and is deeply familiar with the region. Little wonder then, his second novel, after The Pearl Diver, is set on China's rugged border with North Korea. The Ginseng Hunter (Doubleday, 192 pages, $21.95) is a harrowing tale of political oppression under the communist regime of Kim Jong-il.

The nameless protagonist of the tale is a hunter of ginseng, a valuable root that has medicinal properties. Living on China's border with North Korea, overlooking the Tumen River, he spends his days in solitude, unperturbed by the happenings of the larger world. A simple man, he follows his family tradition of respecting the ginseng root and shares an almost spiritual connection with the plant.

But his uneventful life is about to be shaken up by horrific tales from across the border. On one of his regular visits to a local brothel, run by the no-nonsense Miss Wong, he spends the night with a North Korean refugee. Mysteriously drawn to her, he finds himself fretting over her difficult past and her few chances of survival if she were to return north.

Alternating with the story of the prostitute is the very believable story of a North Korean mother and daughter who must do anything to stay alive in the face of extreme hardship and the criminal indifference of the regime of the "Great Leader." Talarigo has a sharp eye for the intense ties that bind family, and how they are manipulated by oppressive regimes to strip people of their humanity.

The two disparate strands are joined together when the daughter appears at the ginseng hunter's door, and he starts to feel protective toward her, including his quest to "buy" the prostitute from Miss Wong so that she may become a mother to the little girl. But what about the girl's real mother? Is she dead or alive? And is her story, in any way, connected to the prostitute's?

There are no neat endings to this psychologically affecting portrait of desire and guilt. At a time when America's gaze is directed toward the Middle East, The Ginseng Hunter is a scathing reminder of the perils that communism continues to wreak in pockets across the world.

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This review appeared in Chicago Sun-Times.

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