The last exiles by Ann Shin

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When Suja leads Jin blindfolded to the top of a building and then takes away the cloth to reveal the view across Pyongyang, they are both elated by the glorious vision of the city and the shared feeling that a shining future lies before them. But their excitement is shortlived, as they gradually come to realise the corruption and terror at the heart of their country, North Korea. The Dear Leader rules the people with a fear that makes everyone distrustful of others. A rash decision leads Jin to be branded a traitorous thief, running for his life.

Author Ann Shin is Canadian with Korean ancestry, and has based her novel on the researched true stories of defectors from North Korea, providing a rare insight into life under the oppressive regime, and also the plight of refugees who escape to China, where as fugitives without any rights, they are hunted down and exploited or deported.

There are many harsh scenes, from the starving Korean villagers scraping pine bark for food, to the brutality of the Korean prison, to life on the run in China where Korean women are sold as wives or worse. And within that world of fear and exploitation, life throws up difficult moral dilemmas: a father forced to beat his son in order to protect the rest of his family; comrades forced to abandon a friend pleading for help; and others, desperate for any work, contributing to people smuggling and sex slavery. The lines of morals and ethics become blurred.

It is the moral decisions that people are forced to make that are at the heart of this story. But the narrative itself is carried by the actions of the two young lovers, Jin and Suja, separated from each other and desperate to be reunited. Alternating chapters follow the paths of each of them as they journey through many hardships, determined to find a better life.

It is a dramatic story offering a rare insight into life in North Korea, and a warning is due that there are some horribly cruel scenes. But readers will be carried along by each exciting chapter, to find out what happens to Jin and Suja.

Themes: North Korea, Totalitarian state, Refugees, Morals and ethics, Romance.

Helen Eddy