Ann Shin, Canadian of Korean extraction, is perhaps best known as a filmmaker. My Enemy, My Brother, about two Iraqis on opposite sides of the conflict, was shortlisted for a 2016 Academy Award. Another was the well-received The Defector: Escape from North Korea. Shin has now turned her hand to fiction. Her debut novel The Last Exiles is, goes the blurb, “inspired by real stories”.
Suja and Jin are university sweethearts in Pyongyang. They have different status in what is supposed to be an egalitarian society: Suja’s family enjoys the latest fashions in shops only available to the privileged, while her boyfriend Jin’s family in the countryside relies on foraging to keep from starving. But family backgrounds soon have little to do with their challenges to stay together.
At first, life as a university student is not difficult. The two join the debate club and enjoy strolls around Pyongyang. These early pages may seem prosaic, yet Shin prefaces the story with a prologue in which Jin has escaped from prison after stealing a sack of cornmeal. As the story unfolds, Jin has returned to visit his family in the countryside just after their apartment is ransacked and their cornmeal is stolen. It’s their most valuable possession. Without it, the family can only subsist on tree bark. Jin retrieves his family’s cornmeal—and much more on top of that—from a state facility, a crime punishable by life in prison and even death; Jin is soon caught and sent to jail.
The North Korean setting is quickly a thing of the past as both Jin and later Suja flee for safety over the border in China. North China is just as bleak as Pyongyang and the North Korean countryside.
The Last Exiles, an English novel set in North Korea, benefits from some rarity value; it is evidently informed by Shin’s knowledge of the country gleaned from the defectors she has met and interviewed. Details abound: when Suja surprises Jin with a visit to a Pyongyang rooftop in the early days of the relationship, Shin writes:
To his right were the immense presidential buildings and the stately Kumsusan Avenue, which was the route for all the national parades. To his left he could see the statue of Chollima, the flying horse with wings arched into the sky, its nose pointing toward the heavens. Chollima was the famous messenger horse that flew to military outposts during the Manchurian War, helping Chosun fight off attacking forces and to eventually rise victorious.
When she discusses her characters’ relationship with the regime, it rings true:
The snowy avenue stretched before him, and Jung-un watched through half-lidded eyes as throngs of people kept coming, block after block of sobbing faces that wailed and shouted their love for the Dear Leader. Jung-un felt swamped by their grief, the sheer unrelenting weight of it enveloping him, bludgeoning him, and with each leaden step, the austere facial expression he had contrived for the occasion settled into his resting face—the face of who he was to become.
But ultimately Shin lets the travails of North Korean refugees drive the plot. Kim Jung-il and Kim Jung-un both make appearances towards the beginning and at the end of the story, but with little dramatic purpose. However horrific and based on actual experiences they may be, Suja’s and Jin’s experiences in North Korea and China seem to be written to shock and sway readers. For many readers, that may be enough.