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Reviews of The Liberators by E.J. Koh

The Liberators

by E.J. Koh

The Liberators by E.J. Koh X
The Liberators by E.J. Koh
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     Not Yet Rated
  • Published:
    Nov 2023, 240 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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About this Book

Book Summary

Extraordinarily beautiful and deeply moving, The Liberators is an elegantly wrought family saga of memory, trauma, and empathy, and a stunning testament to the consequences and fortunes of inheritance.

At the height of the military dictatorship in South Korea, Insuk and Sungho are arranged to be married. The couple soon moves to San Jose, California, with an infant and Sungho's overbearing mother-in-law. Adrift in a new country, Insuk grieves the loss of her past and her divided homeland, finding herself drawn into an illicit relationship that sets into motion a dramatic saga and echoes for generations to come.

From the Gwangju Massacre to the 1988 Olympics, flashbacks to Korean repatriation after Japanese surrender, and the Sewol ferry accident, E. J. Koh's exquisitely drawn portraits and symphonic testimony from guards, prisoners, perpetrators, and liberators spans continents and four generations of two Korean families forever changed by fateful past decisions made in love and war.


Daejeon, 1980

By an early age, I could read and write in six languages. I found a tool—an ink brush, a twig, or my stub finger—and used it to draw a character on parchment, dirt, or air. When one line touched another, my heart reached my fingertips to impart meaning. At five, it was for pleasure that I left words all over town: on a tree, I carved tree; in the river, I spelled river in pebbles; on my mother's dress, I inked dress. At some point, my mother set me down and didn't pick me up again. On my mother's grave, I wrote grave. I was just a boy at the end of Japanese colonial rule. I wrote my words as if I couldn't live without them, as if I were made of nothing but words. I classed rock, plant, animal, man, and God. I observed a patch of weeds and then myself in the mirror to see the differences between plant and man. Between them was a middle point, or animal. I asked what stood between man and God, but the grave said nothing. I watched the country divided up ...

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BookBrowse Review


American responsibility for a split Korea (both for the initial fissure and its enduring existence) casts a long shadow across the novel. In just over 200 pages, EJ Koh covers a remarkable amount of 20th century Korean history, with enough detail to offer vital context for the characters' homesickness for a homeland that has become unrecognizable, that has been irreparably broken by political gamesmanship and imperialism. Koh's writing has a natural elegance. She can set a scene with poetic acumen; the dry cleaning business Sungho opens is "in a building where green bottle flies as smooth as sea glass swarmed." She cleverly and aptly captures a character's essence with minimal description...continued

Full Review Members Only (680 words)

(Reviewed by Lisa Butts).

Media Reviews

Library Journal
Richly multi-layered... . Koh's work should resonate strongly with its focus on the desire of wanting to be seen and to belong.

Poets & Writers
Breaks new ground in understanding the Korean diaspora and the emancipating power of love.

San Francisco Chronicle, A Best Book of Fall
As always, Koh's singular grasp of language results in achingly beautiful writing.

Seattle Times
Beautiful... . it captures the very real whiplash of experience and emotion that comes with being human.

The Los Angeles Times
Lyrical... . Kaleidoscopic... . explores how the past travels with us, and how we may find solace amid loss through relationships with others.

Koh produces another Intricately accomplished, intimate melding of history and storytelling.

BookPage (starred review)
Another resounding triumph for E.J. Koh: a brave exploration of the complexities of the human experience and the impossible task of making peace with the past.

Foreword Reviews (starred review)
A soaring multigenerational saga about learning to accept the past without letting it overshadow the future.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
A mesmerizing, delicately crafted novel ... Koh's poetic prose delights with surprising metaphors and a cast of skillfully rendered characters.

Lit Hub
Kaleidoscopic... . exquisite... . A family saga which manages to infuse the historical with the mythic, blend the epic with the intimate... . extraordinary.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
A moving and lyrical debut novel... . Koh has fully harnessed her potential in this assured outing.

Author Blurb Crystal Hana Kim, author of The Stone Home and If You Leave Me
An elegiac, ferocious, and deeply stirring novel. E. J. Koh melds image and story together precisely, holding up to light the history and making of Korea. I loved The Liberators not only for what it shows us about our world, but moreso, ourselves.

Author Blurb Jimin Han, author of The Apology
E. J. Koh brings her elegant poet's hand to this intimate and expansive mythic novel of four generations of a family suffering sudden absences and war, seeking love and connection, weighted with the complexities of no easy answers. I didn't want this book to end.

Author Blurb Joseph Han, author of Nuclear Family
The beauty, intensity, and breadth of E. J. Koh's work continues to transcend to new levels. Her language is transformative, making history more alive than we can feel and understand alone. Here is a chorus of lives and a song of peace. With The Liberators, Koh cements her place as one of the greatest Korean American writers of our time.

Author Blurb Matthew Salesses, author of The Sense of Wonder
E. J. Koh brings a poet's eye and sensibility to this remarkable novel. Here you will find characters and sentences that will leave you gasping for more. The Liberators captures grief and paranoia and a legacy of colonialism and violence with beauty and measure and grace.

Author Blurb Paul Lisicky, author of Later: My Life at the Edge of the World
E. J. Koh's The Liberators is a sublime achievement for its deft political and emotional intelligence, its fine-tuned grasp of how a divided country divides lives through the generations. As in all great works of art, it uses the earthbound to transport us to a realm that feels like it's been unperceived until now. As readers, we enter a theater of raw perception. A tree falls out of nowhere, a boar walks into a room unannounced, shadows shatter across a ceiling. Illumination can happen at any turn, reminding us that there's always more world than we've had the capacity to see.

Author Blurb Tayari Jones, author of An American Marriage
Spare, beautiful and richly layered, The Liberators is dazzling.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

A Brief History of Korean Relations in the Late 20th and Early 21st Centuries

North-South Korean border in 2011, facing south towards blue military buildings In EJ Koh's The Liberators, Insuk's friend Robert is an activist passionately in favor of the reunification of North and South Korea. Korea was occupied by Japan from the early 20th century through 1948; when the Japanese surrendered at the end of World War II, Korea was split along the 38th parallel by the United States. The northern region was occupied by the Soviet Union, and the southern by the US. This was meant to be a temporary solution to instability but the split has continued through the present day, cemented in part by the Korean War. Efforts toward and talk of reunification have been a regular part of Korean diplomacy ever since.

In 1972, North and South Korea issued the July 4 South-North Communiqué, which presented...

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