South Korea was not always the prosperous, democratic country it is now. Just a few decades ago in the late seventies, it was relatively poor and ruled by a harsh authoritarian regime desperate to catch up with the West while cracking down on any form of public dissent. This is the turbulent backdrop against which Everything Belongs to Us by Yoojin Grace Wuertz takes place.
Namin, Jisun and Sunam are students at the prestigious Seoul National University, the best school in the nation. Graduation means an almost guaranteed life of lucrative employment, connections and advancement. For Jisun, the daughter of one of the country’s richest tycoons, this life of privilege is exactly what she hates. But for her friend Namin, the daughter of street-food vendors, it is everything, though not for purely materialistic reasons. In between is Sunam, who desperately wants to climb the school’s social ladder by becoming a member of the Circle, a campus secret society. He also becomes entranced by Namin and starts dating her. The relationship becomes complicated as their contrasting backgrounds and ambitions clash.
The students’ personal struggles take place amid stark real-world problems such as violent factory worker protests, a clandestine Christian activist network trying to agitate for workers, and the sad fate of Namin’s bitter older sister who leaves her factory job to work in a red light district and later gets pregnant by an American GI who later leaves her. The latter brings the starkness of poverty to the fore, especially when she then leaves her baby with Namin’s sister. These disparate elements are not explored very deeply but mesh together to form a subdued background. It can at times seem as if too much is going on and plot elements such as the Circle are introduced then discarded; the narrative might have benefited from a tighter focus on the more central elements.
Everything Belongs to Us is set in a post-war Korea that has not yet reached first-world status. The historical context is notable, not just because it is a particularly precarious time during the country’s economic development, but also because there are very few English-language novels set in South Korea and not about the Korean War. As such, the novel provides a welcome glimpse into a country that is still not that well-known or portrayed in the West except for its electronics brands.
The settings vary from Namin’s working-class sparse home to Jisun’s ultra-wealthy household, but they are still subject to the same forces that dominate society. Under President Park Chung-hee—the father of the recent female president who was just impeached—South Korea is a rigid, conservative nation that has forsaken personal liberties for economic growth and prohibited dissent. While Namin is constrained by these stifling norms, Jisun actively pushes against them. All this works to create an intriguing story, especially as it is never apparent whether Namin or Jisun will prevail in their respective challenges.
Wuertz’s female protagonists are strong and driven; but the male characters, however, are by contrast flimsy and superficial. Sunam has little going for him, other than being a good player of baduk, also known as go. It is unclear why both main female characters are drawn intently to him. Other male characters, such as Juno, Sunam’s supposed mentor, and the American missionary, Peter, play a very minor role or act mostly as a foil for Jisun. The more memorable male characters are minor ones such as Namin’s brother whose cerebral palsy caused him to be sent to be raised by their grandparents in the countryside, and Sunam’s controlling, tycoon father. The former is a major reason for Namin’s incredible drive for trying to advance herself at school.
Nevertheless, Namin and Jisun are compelling characters that deservedly soak up most of the attention and drive a worthy literary debut in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.