Published: October 14th, 2014
Read from May 9th to 15th, 2015
Synopsis from Goodreads:
A haunting memoir of teaching English to the sons of North Korea's ruling class during the last six months of Kim Jong-il's reign
Every day, three times a day, the students march in two straight lines, singing praises to Kim Jong-il and North Korea: Without you, there is no motherland. Without you, there is no us. It is a chilling scene, but gradually Suki Kim, too, learns the tune and, without noticing, begins to hum it. It is 2011, and all universities in North Korea have been shut down for an entire year, the students sent to construction fields—except for the 270 students at the all-male Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), a walled compound where portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il look on impassively from the walls of every room, and where Suki has accepted a job teaching English. Over the next six months, she will eat three meals a day with her young charges and struggle to teach them to write, all under the watchful eye of the regime.
Life at PUST is lonely and claustrophobic, especially for Suki, whose letters are read by censors and who must hide her notes and photographs not only from her minders but from her colleagues—evangelical Christian missionaries who don't know or choose to ignore that Suki doesn't share their faith. As the weeks pass, she is mystified by how easily her students lie, unnerved by their obedience to the regime. At the same time, they offer Suki tantalizing glimpses of their private selves—their boyish enthusiasm, their eagerness to please, the flashes of curiosity that have not yet been extinguished. She in turn begins to hint at the existence of a world beyond their own—at such exotic activities as surfing the Internet or traveling freely and, more dangerously, at electoral democracy and other ideas forbidden in a country where defectors risk torture and execution. But when Kim Jong-il dies, and the boys she has come to love appear devastated, she wonders whether the gulf between her world and theirs can ever be bridged.
Without You, There Is No Us offers a moving and incalculably rare glimpse of life in the world's most unknowable country, and at the privileged young men she calls "soldiers and slaves."
I managed to absolutely fall in love with this book, which feels wrong to say when the subject matter is not at all something to love. Suki Kim spent a summer and a fall semester teaching English to a group of young men who are the sons of North Korea's elite. The glimpse the book provided of what it is like to be even an elite member of North Korean society was fascinating and really mind-blowing at times. It really shows how controlled and restricted everything there is, and that is definitely something extremely interesting in the book.
However, the book also manages to be unexpectedly heart-warming. The boys that Suki Kim are teaching are really humanized in this book, and I cried at the end when she had to leave knowing that they would continue to live in such a horrible place. These are the same kids who are mostly destined to be the elites of North Korea once their fathers die, but it's hard to think about that when you are seeing them in such a human light.
There was a bit at the end of the book where the students become fascinated by Harry Potter and desperately want to watch it even when the Christian missionaries at the school are fighting against it because they believe it to be evil. It's ironic when they're in such a restricted place as North Korea that it's the outsiders (who have been feeling the strain of censorship for months) who ultimately end up keeping many of the students from seeing the movie.
As a massive Harry Potter fan myself, it was such an experience to read about these North Korean boy's own fascination with it. Suki Kim ends up telling them about the entire phenomenon outside of just the books and movies, and the boys seem just as fascinated with something that has captivated the whole world as with the story itself. To me, it felt like they realized they were missing out on something huge and desperately wanted to experience it too. That was something I really felt because of my own experiences with Harry Potter, and it really did help me feel a connection to them.
*END OF SPOILERS*
I would highly recommend this book to absolutely everyone. As I mentioned, I was in tears at the end of it. It really touches you. Not only is it an amazing glimpse into life in North Korea, it also helps show that the people who live there, even the elites, really are people, but it explores the mindset of the people there and how the population is kept under control. I honestly want everyone I've ever met to read this book, and it's been a long time since I could say that about a book.
I received this book for review from a Goodreads First Reads giveaway.