Tales of love, loss and survival set in the war-torn Korea of the 20th century are cleverly linked in the life of one female “trickster” in this debut novel from South Korean writer Mirinae Lee. Seven individual stories are connected through the device of an elderly lady, Mrs Mook, recounting her experiences. Listening carefully is Lee Sae-ri, a middle-aged divorcee who works at the Golden Sunset retirement home where Mrs Mook lives. In a bid to ease the residents through their final years, Lee Sae-ri has taken it upon herself to write their “obituaries” by recording their personal histories.
The novel focuses solely on Mrs Mook’s exploits which appear exceptional in more ways than one. Firstly, she has geophagy, a desire to eat earth, which puts the flower pots of the Golden Sunset in jeopardy. Secondly, she has some startling and horrific anecdotes which, doubtful as it seems that they all happened to one individual, are credible enough to be true.
Mrs Mook begins her saga by saying she was born Japanese (under the occupation), lived as a North Korean and was now dying as a South Korean. She also claims to have been, at one time or another, a murderer, a spy, a terrorist, a mother, a lover, an escape artist and a slave.
The stories which follow broadly conform to those themes. The reader sees a potential Mrs Mook, either as the protagonist or a major character, and occasionally her adopted daughter, Mihee, in various guises. These range from a homeless person to an imprisoned sex slave for soldiers (a comfort woman) to a spy operating in South Korea.
These different “lives” are not related in chronological order, which can be confusing, especially as the first story, “Virgin Ghost on the North Korean Border”, is told from the viewpoint of a young boy. The eighth life of the title is not immediately obvious either. However, as events unfold, clues dropped previously click into place to produce a satisfying whole.
Whether or not the full picture is true, or partly true, is up for debate. Mrs Mook is, after all, a trickster. Mook, naturally, is not her real name and she confesses to having had several others. Most of her lives have been extremely harsh; she has had to rely on her own resources to withstand them. Her greatest gift is her tongue, in that she can easily pick up languages and, with the odd fabrication or two, talk her way out of (or into) most situations.
Telling stories is an important theme in the novel. They can be a source of solace, especially in the comfort station where Yongmal, a fellow prisoner, keeps up the girls’ morale with memories of her childhood. Fiction can also be a survival technique. When Mihee gets into trouble at her North Korean school for refusing to confess her non-existent sins against the Communist Party, Mrs Mook advises her to use equivocation as a survival technique. “The Art of Storytelling … you pretend that’s the name of the class,” she tells her. Mihee soon becomes skilled at detailing misdemeanours which are credible but not serious enough to warrant any great punishment. Her admissions also reveal much about life in North Korea under the regime of Kim Il-sung:
“When we learned about Our Great Leader’s ideology of Juche in history class, I realized I’d committed a major crime the other day by trading my extra pencil with Comrade Young-hye’s eraser, and now I’m dying of shame that I engaged unwittingly in a wicked practice of Yankee capitalism!”
As the distinction between truth and deceit blurs, a problem emerges: what if the stories being told are not at all true? What is the difference between telling your children that their grandparents have “gone to the sky” (when in fact they are dead) and false propaganda about the Dear Leader? This is especially troublesome when a character, such as Yongmal’s husband, knows he is being duped but is happy with the lie.
Lee leaves this unanswered, along with the question of the veracity of Mrs Mook’s anecdotes. Mrs Mook says it is her “truth” and Lee underlines this in the Acknowledgements section with a note that many of the events in the novel are based on real-life accounts. The reader is left to wonder. However, it becomes clear that accurate recording is not the point; it is listening which is key. Lee writes: “Sometimes the only and best thing you can give to others suffering is your ears”. Through the character of Mrs Mook, Lee presents compelling stories which deserve to be heard.