cover image Beasts of a Little Land

Beasts of a Little Land

Juhea Kim. Ecco, $27.99 (416p) ISBN 978-0-06-309357-7

Kim’s dreamy, intense debut is both a sure-footed historical account of the Korean struggle for independence from Japan and the emotionally fraught story of several people whose lives are inextricably tied together. Among the sprawling cast first introduced in 1917 is a starving Korean soldier who meets a Japanese soldier while hunting a tiger, a young woman raped and impregnated by a loutish Japanese officer, and a Seoul street urchin who joins the Communist Party. Several years later, a rickshaw driver makes his way up the economic ladder, and many others factor in over the following decades. At the center of the novel is Jade, the eldest daughter of a poor rural family, who in 1918 is trained as a courtesan and later becomes a famous actor—though that’s not the end of her bumpy journey. As the lives of the characters touch, in small ways or large, romances bloom and fade, and fortunes rise and fall. While the members of the Japanese military often verge on being caricatures of villains, and some readers may balk at the novel’s coincidences, the prose is ravishing and Kim demonstrates remarkable control of a complicated narrative. Even those with little knowledge of Korean history will come away struck by the way individuals shape and are shaped by the political and cultural changes of the first half of the 20th century. The author’s off to a strong start. Agent: Jody Kahn, Brandt & Hochman Literary. (Dec.)