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Beasts of a Little Land

A Novel

by Juhea Kim

Beasts of a Little Land by Juhea Kim X
Beasts of a Little Land by Juhea Kim
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  • First Published:
    Dec 2021, 416 pages

    Dec 2022, 336 pages


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Inyeon in the time of Korea's epic struggle for independence
In this excellent debut novel, we go from the wilds of mountainous North Korea to the grit and gloss of Seoul. This historical fiction novel takes us from 1917 through 1965, during Korea's fight to crawl out from under Japanese occupation. It's 416 pages of love in the time of epic struggle for independence. The main characters come of age in a country finding its way. There are little girls who become courtesans and movie stars, street kids who become resistance fighters, rickshaw drivers who become scions of business, military men who give a little and take a lot. There are love stories that run their courses. I repeat: an excellent debut, highly recommended.
Thanks to Ecco and NetGalley for an opportunity to read an advanced reader copy of this book in exchange for my opinion.
Alyson R. (Spokane, WA)

Multifaceted characters capture humanity's good, bad, and gray features in early 20th-century Japanese-occupied Korea
Juhea Kim's "Beasts of a Little Land" reminds me in some ways of Boris Pasternak's "Doctor Zhivago" but with much more vivid and captivating characters. Not being familiar with Korean history, it was an eye-opener learning about the Japanese occupation. Kim captures the brutality of colonialism and its costs to subjects – the Korean body as an object of use – physical labor for men, sex for women, and the starvation and death that leads to orphans (JungHo) and girls sold into courtesan-ship (Jade). Introduced to a suite of characters from various levels of Korean and Japanese society, we see individuals at once subject to forces larger than themselves (even the Japanese officers) but finding agency within existing structures in order to survive, oftentimes in morally questionable ways. Kim raises the question through her character-development, what would you do if faced with these circumstances? The two primary protagonists Jade and JungHo remain at the core of Kim's storytelling, leaving and entering each other's lives like stars in orbit, but leaving an indelible footprint on each other, finding at times joy, heartbreak, and human connection in life-altering circumstances. I would highly recommend reading "Beasts of a Little Land", and to note, Kim's ending was one of the most well-executed and beautiful endings in fiction I have ever read. Looking forward to reading more of her work.
Pamela W. (Piney Flats, TN)

History through Fiction
I learn history best through historical fiction, and I was particularly intrigued by this title because I know little about Korea. Yes, I've read several popular novels, but this author led me through the Japanese occupation of Korea to the independence movement and into some parts of Korea's early nationhood.
The story is populated with interesting characters, both Japanese and Korean, both male and female. While I began slowly trying to keep the characters straight, I felt all parts of the tale were essential. The themes of loyalty, self-gratification, entrepreneurship, and love enriched the history.
This title would make for exciting book club discussion. Who are the beasts?
Bettie T. (Johns Island, SC)

Love and War in Korea
This was a book that pulled me in to some complex, albeit imperfect, characters, and to a better understanding of the culture and history of Korea, a land exotic to me. Our main character, Jade, is sent as a child to become the servant of a woman who is a courtesan, and as one might guess, she becomes one also, and a well-known actress also. Her tale encompasses a bit more than the first half of the 20th century, which means she experiences Korea's subjugation by Korea prior to World War II, and Korea's independence and civil strife following the war. The book does a good job of bringing to light characters who depict many of the historical themes of the era. We see Jade's loves, her insights at times and blindness at other times. I recommend it to anyone who loves historical fiction, especially that which transports one not only to a different time, but also a different place. It should generate a good discussion for book groups.
Carol J. (Isle, MN)

More than a 'Little Land"
What a captivating book! So full of images, traditions, insights into another culture, and history. What a great way to learn about the history of Korea and its people. The characters were engrossing and to follow them for many years through many changes was a gift.
I had previously read about the sea women, so enjoyed that reference in the book.
Would highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys historical fiction and/or character development.
Laurie F. (Brookline, MA)

Wonderful Story of Love During Political Turmoil in Korea
This was a great read, particularly if you are a lover of historical fiction. Throughout the book, you are immersed in the lives of the characters, their relationships, and their circumstances during the Korean political conflicts from 1917 to 1965. The reader follows very young girls that are sold by their families to become courtesans and how their lives evolve and relationships they form (for good or not so good) as they grow into adults. Definitely a good read!
Jan B. (Estes Park, CO)

Beasts of a Little Land - Stalking the Tiger
I enjoyed this book on two levels. One, I was very interested to learn of the history of Korea in that time period. I find my education of that era has been centered in the USA and Europe; but to truly understand and have empathy for the peoples of the world one should know what was happening everywhere. Two, I found the characters woven into a fascinating story of love, deception, trials, greed and survival. The fact that the story took place over half a century allowed the characters to grow and change through the story. What I found that the author, Juhea Kim, did so well was to connect these two areas together in a novel that was hard to put down.

This book is not a "beach read" because the reader needs to keep track of events and characters. It would make an excellent book club choice though as analyzing the characters, their actions and reactions would be very interesting to compare with others.

I would suggest that the reader keep a list of the characters handy as they enter and exit the story many times.
Marion M. (Mishawaka, IN)

Beasts of a Little Land
During Korea's colonization by Japan, during the struggle for independence, during World War II, during the time of struggles between the communists and those wanting a free Korea, author Kim intertwines the lives of beggars, courtesans, military personnel and businessmen. Jade, a young girl sold into courtesan training, and JungHo, an orphan beggar from the country, meet, become friends, helpers, and wishful lovers, adversaries, antagonists, but often thinking about and dreaming about each other. Surrounding Jade and JungHo are Jade's fellow courtesans and madame, and JungHo's gang of fellow orphans and thieves. Both main characters develop into enterprising young adults, Jade a widely known actress, and JungHo a trusted protector of a leader of the independence and communist movements.

In many ways the story is a tragedy, few of the characters reach their potential and many have rough broken relationships and lives. The novel begins with hunters (JungHo's dad and Japanese soldiers) of one of the few "beasts"' of the wild, and ends again in the wild. Non-wilderness beasts like poverty, colonization, a feudal type stem were larger problems. The writing is magnificent, especially the descriptions of nature and the use of color words to develop visual pictures. Kim also stays true to the stylized and dignified writing anticipated from Asian writers who are true to their heritage. A well written historical fiction novel stays true to the historical facts that helps the reader learn more than those facts. The reader learns about everyday life, the nitty gritty of daily living, the culture. Kim does that well in Beasts.

The timeframe and Korea/Japan conflict for Beasts of a Little Land is the same as that for Pachinko by Lee (Grand Central Publishing , 2017). While not a read alike, the two compliment each other well. Memoirs of a Geisha by Golden (Vintage Books, 2005) provides a comparison with the work and role of Korean courtesans with the Japanese geisha.
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