'Beasts of a Little Land': Korean history unfolds in Juhea Kim's epic debut novel


If Juhea Kim’s “Beasts of a Little Land” (Ecco/HarperCollins, 416 pp., ★★★ out of four, out Tuesday) were filmed, you’d want to see it in theaters, with a giant screen and a sweeping soundtrack. Military campaigns, anti-capitalist gatherings, orphan girls groomed into world-famous courtesans, street rats rising to glory, all against the backdrop of Korea’s tumultuous 20th century – the cast grows large and the storyline reaches far.

You wouldn’t know from reading it that “Beasts of a Little Land” is Kim’s debut novel. There is no shortage of ambition on display here, and fleet-footed narrative pacing to match it. We start in the wintry mountains of 1917 Korea, where the paths of a starving Korean man, a Japanese officer and a tiger cross with portentous consequences. It is a blunt and loud literary move. Two opposing nations meet up with a rare beast. There be symbols here!

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'Beasts of a Little Land': Korean history unfolds in Juhea Kim’s epic debut novel

After its fable-like opening, the novel settles down to introduce its roster of central characters: Jade is one of three orphan girls training to join the ranks of Seoul’s elite courtesans; JungHo is a street urchin, violent yet somehow guileless, destined to become a leader of the oppressed; HanChol is an upwardly mobile (and unusually handsome) rickshaw driver whose rosy destiny foretells Korea’s ascendence to an economic powerhouse in the 21st century; MyungBo and SungSoo represent the dueling impulses of Korean men under occupation, debating whether to fight for freedom or give in and profit from all the Japanese (and American) interference.

“Beasts of a Little Land” might recall for some readers the bestselling, award-winning “Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee, a novel that also gave us the twisting fates of a large Korean cast suffering under Japanese occupation. Though this novel offers many of the same pleasures, it is more diffuse and less impactful than “Pachinko.”

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'Beasts of a Little Land': Korean history unfolds in Juhea Kim’s epic debut novel

Kim drops her characters into interesting scenes but often leaves them inert, as if we’re watching a filmstrip. The narrative describes their internal states at length (“she was surprised and disappointed when nothing changed in the smallness of their daily routine”), but action feels muddy and distant. The effect is that the book can feel like it’s written in synopsis, that we’re getting the digested version of the characters’ raw experience.

Still, this is a book written with warmth, wisdom, and an inherent sense for the dramatic. Readers who take to its style will gladly follow the tangled lives of its charismatic cast.

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