I’ve reviewed books that have uncommon narrative styles before, but this is the first time I found myself lost in cultural differences, not just between my culture and theirs but within their culture and the different social strata. No, this is not a criticism. It was fascinating to catch myself having expectations because of the seemingly traditional narrative approach only to have them turned upside down.
Basically, Everything Belongs to Us is a small story, or rather a collection of small stories, that became a deep dive into the culture of South Korea starting around 1978, long enough for a new generation to grow up after the Korean War. This is critical because of the consequences and impact the war left behind in both the physical world and the social structures while the main characters have neither experienced the time before nor the war itself.
The economic disparity, the focus on education and children as the guardians of the future, and the political rhetoric is presented in a matter-of-fact manner that begs you to reflect on what you’re seeing. This is not a simple story despite being shown through often uncritical eyes because it reveals the tradeoffs and consequences both within families and the larger picture. It shows the path to radicalization, but also the conflict and social strata within the radical movements and society as a whole.
It’s not a happy story, though it has its moments, and the cultural differences are never clearer than when a ghost appears but does not transform the book into a paranormal fantasy. It’s another fact of life in their culture. No one questions this as out of the ordinary.
The novel offers a fascinating look at the various reactions to wealth, poverty, honor, and survival through the eyes of young people struggling for control over their own existence beyond the demands of tradition and parents. At the same time, the main characters are trying to meet those expectations, creating the paradoxical conflict in which, to some degree, they are both the rescuer and the jailer of their futures. This is true for everyone except Jisun who is a perpetual rebel and experimenter. Even this is a commentary on social status and wealth as her very willingness sets her apart from those she most wants to connect with. She is unable to see how her giving up advantages does not make her the same as those who never had them in the first place.
While not a single character made it through the book without doing something or making a choice that repelled me, none of the main figures lost my interest, not even Sunam who tried hard to do so from the very start. There’s a large cast with many main characters and time jumps into the past that are subtle and easy to miss, but though I was disoriented at times and had trouble figuring out the who and when for a little bit, I was never lost.
The novel offers a glimpse into their world followed up with a summary and where these people are in modern times, having survived complicated childhoods. It shows the culture with both strengths and shadows, the impact of interaction with foreigners near and far, and the unwieldy balance between respect for a benefactor and spite because the aid has been necessary. It also shows the changes in the meaning of patriotism and honor between generations. While focusing on these young characters, it manages to paint a picture that spans much farther than I had imagined, from bridges mined with explosives in case North Korea invades to families putting all their hopes and dreams into the one child able to compete academically, which has far reaching consequences because they never look to see what their focus has created.
It’s not an easy read, though in some ways it’s all too easy, but I think the book does a good job of bringing another reality into my view, many layered, and both familiar and alien all at once. It was worth the time spent within its pages.
P.S. I received this title from the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review.