Thursday, July 31, 2014

Review: Tendrils of Life

Tendrils of Life: A Story of Love, Loss, and Survival in the Turmoil of the Korean War
Owen Choi
Princeton Falcon Press, 2012

About the Book

Acute food shortages and lawlessness plague communist-occupied Seoul at the start of the Korean War in 1950. Jimin, a sixteen-year-old boy, aches to return to the safety of his old home on Ockdo (Jade Island), a remote island he’d left five years earlier. But only his father, who is absent from home, knows the way.

His adversary, a man who’s been plotting to wipe out Jimin’s family and steal their island, causes a tragedy and tries to eliminate him, forcing him to traverse the war-torn country on foot with his seven-year-old sister to find his father. But the war sweeps across the country multiple times and hinders them from meeting up with him. Back in Seoul, with Chinese troops who invade the country to prop up the communists bearing down on them, Jimin is forced to join  the army, leaving his sister alone, hungry, and homeless in the cold, bomb-devastated city.

Tendrils of Life is a rich and intriguing work of historical literary fiction interwoven with gripping characters and visual detail. It’s a story of love and hope, greed and revenge, and the quest for survival in the turmoil of war—and the resilience of the human spirit.

My Review

Tendrils of Life is historical fiction set in Korea. Most of the story, though not all, occurs during the Korean War, 1950–1953. Tendrils of Life has plenty of flashbacks. These take readers back even further, several decades further in some cases. These flashbacks do place the main story into context. I will say that there were times I was confused, but by the end I saw how the pieces of the puzzle fit together and I understood, for the most part, why the flashbacks were so important to the overall story.

It is a complex story. I won’t lie. For those unfamiliar with the Korean War—like me—this one may prove challenging. Not impossible, just challenging. I believe it seeks to provide some answers, some insight, into the history and politics of the war itself. Trying to explain a war is never easy, and I appreciate the complexity of this one.

All the characters had strengths and weaknesses. I felt they were human, which is the best compliment I can give any author. Tendrils of Life is at best bittersweet; if I’m being honest, more bitter than sweet. It felt very bleak, but it’s an honest bleakness and not mere manipulation.

Tendrils of Life was a bit outside my comfort zone, but I am so glad I read it.

Becky Laney