Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

Nothing to Envy is on the range of historical fiction, but closer to fact than fiction. The novel’s basis comes from the interviews of its author, Barbara Demick, with defectors and refugees of and from North Korea. In it, the stories of those refugees become threads that Ms. Demick uses to weave a tapestry portraying life in North Korea, giving readers a look into a country that most only know through fanciful tales and overblown media, and that an unfortunate few know through hard, terrible experience. It is a deeply touching, engaging read, and she brings the characters, who are in fact real people made characters to protect their identities, to life. I highly recommend this book.

What it’s about

Ms. Demick takes the stories told to her by refugees and defectors, and turns them into the story of their lives. It is a raw book, and though she most likely glossed over some of the more terrible experiences, she tells the stories of several people from different backgrounds, and takes the reader through their childhood, their growing up, their realizations that North Korea is not what they thought it was, and then through the various ways they escape and how they currently live outside of South Korea.

It is no pretty read; some happy endings abound, others are unfortunate but not terrible. This is a glimpse into human nature and its effects, both on the world and the people inhabiting it.

However, it is a beautiful book. Ms. Demick writes with an engaging tone and brilliant story-telling – I was wrapped up in the threads of each person she follows, and despite breaks in reading, during which I crammed my head full of material for final exams, I picked up each time with no trouble at all.

Why I picked it

I was recommended it by Hannah Fertig, a smart woman whom I admire. A combination of her recommendation and my curiosity about a topic that I have only learned about through media and memes led me to this book.

What I got out of it

Readers get a peek into what life is truly like in North Korea, without the embellishments of media like The Interview, a comedy film. Nothing to Envy shows the highs and lows of humanity in a hard, cruel place, and though I can’t begin to truly empathize with those portrayed in the book, it nevertheless humanizes and makes more relatable a group of people that many barely see or know. I cried at some points – Ms. Demick paints an empathetic and engaging image, and manages to do so while avoiding the embellishment of sob-story writing; it is dignified, and deeply touching.

It also largely widened my perspective on how much I absolutely have to be grateful for. The book shows a totally different way of life, and one that deeply wounds its citizens when they begin to realize how much they have never had.

To describe what this book gives in two words: knowledge and empathy – both go hand-in-hand.

Who else would I recommend it to

Pretty much anybody 16+, perhaps slightly older at your/their guardians’ discretion, for all the empathy and knowledge it imparts.

It is a perspective-giving read, and an educational one, as well as an emotional and engaging story. Highly recommended.

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