The Girl with Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee
Published July 2nd 2015
An extraordinary insight into life under one of the world’s most ruthless and secretive dictatorships – and the story of one woman’s terrifying struggle to avoid capture/repatriation and guide her family to freedom. As a child growing up in North Korea, Hyeonseo Lee was one of millions trapped by a secretive and brutal totalitarian regime. Her home on the border with China gave her some exposure to the world beyond the confines of the Hermit Kingdom and, as the famine of the 1990s struck, she began to wonder, question and to realise that she had been brainwashed her entire life. Given the repression, poverty and starvation she witnessed surely her country could not be, as she had been told “the best on the planet”? Aged seventeen, she decided to escape North Korea. She could not have imagined that it would be twelve years before she was reunited with her family. She could not return, since rumours of her escape were spreading, and she and her family could incur the punishments of the government authorities – involving imprisonment, torture, and possible public execution. Hyeonseo instead remained in China and rapidly learned Chinese in an effort to adapt and survive. Twelve years and two lifetimes later, she would return to the North Korean border in a daring mission to spirit her mother and brother to South Korea, on one of the most arduous, costly and dangerous journeys imaginable. This is the unique story not only of Hyeonseo’s escape from the darkness into the light, but also of her coming of age, education and the resolve she found to rebuild her life – not once, but twice – first in China, then in South Korea. Strong, brave and eloquent, this memoir is a triumph of her remarkable spirit.
This is the story of Hyeonseo Lee, a woman who escaped from North Korea. We follow her story, since she was little, living with her parents in her country, to the present day.
This novel was a complete surprise. I knew life in North Korea was difficult but had no idea of the extent of it. The public executions, the rules, the education, all seems surreal. This book was eye-opening and that’s one of the reasons I consider it worth picking up.
Lee also shows us that the hardest part might not be leaving North Korea but staying out. The goal is usually to get a South Korean citizenship but, until they get to South Korea or a South Korean Embassy outside of North Korea, the refugees might be intercepted by the Chinese police, which immediately sends them back to their country, where they face the horrible consequences of their escape. It might also be hard for a North Korean to survive outside their country because their education has no value in the modern world. All of this makes their life even harder but, luckily, there are organizations and people with good hearts who help them.
Even if you don’t want to read this book, I think you should know Hyeonseo Lee’s story. You can listen to her TED talk, available on Youtube. It’s only fifteen minutes. Still, I recommend checking out the book. Maybe it’s available in your local library, or you can borrow it from somebody, like I did.
Rating: 4 stars
“This is when I understood that we can do without almost anything – our home, even our country. But we will never do without other people, and we will never do without family.”