Nothing to Envy – Barbara Demick

Short & Sweet: Nothing to Envy is a surreal peek behind the curtain of the lives of six North Korean defectors and their families. Rather than a dry report of the crimes behind the regime, this novel discusses the day-to-day of ordinary citizens, and the trials they face. An absolute staple for any reader interested in North Korea.

Nothing to Envy follows the lives of six North Koreans over fifteen years—a chaotic period that saw the death of Kim Il-sung, the unchallenged rise to power of his son Kim Jong-il, and the devastation of a far-ranging famine that killed one-fifth of the population.
Taking us into a landscape most of us have never before seen, award-winning journalist Barbara Demick brings to life what it means to be living under the most repressive totalitarian regime today—an Orwellian world that is by choice not connected to the Internet, in which radio and television dials are welded to the one government station, and where displays of affection are punished; a police state where informants are rewarded and where an offhand remark can send a person to the gulag for life.
Demick takes us deep inside the country, beyond the reach of government censors. Through meticulous and sensitive reporting, we see her six subjects—average North Korean citizens—fall in love, raise families, nurture ambitions, and struggle for survival. One by one, we experience the moments when they realize that their government has betrayed them.
Nothing to Envy is a groundbreaking addition to the literature of totalitarianism and an eye-opening look at a closed world that is of increasing global importance.

Pages: 338
Published: December 2009

Nothing to Envy is simply fantastic, and I flew through this novel so fast I forgot to take any notes. Unfortunately, I find myself struggling to encompass the impact this novel has in a few short paragraphs. How do you condense the suffering and terror people face in North Korea, both then and now?

When we look at the mystique and secrecy of North Korea, often we get caught up in the outlandish propaganda, in the plastic smiles of the selectively placed North Koreans during a well-staged tour, and the rundown 1970s-esque buildings. Whispers of starvation, of malnutrition, and concentration camps go unacknowledged in the face of awe. But what does all that mean? Often we hear about these realities and separate them from ourselves. It’s easy to read those words and yet, not fully understand such horror. What Nothing to Envy does so effectively is bring these realities to the forefront, forcing us to confront in stark black-and-white what all of those things truly mean, and how they affect ordinary people like you and me.

Though the author Barbara Demick obviously walks us through the history of the regime, touching briefly on its origins (as brief as one can be), we mainly see the regime and its actions through the lens of our six North Korean defectors, moving with them through Kim II-sung’s death, the following ‘Arduous March’, Kim Jung il’s succession, and the escapes all six made. None were without sacrifice, and Demick steps aside for you to feel their pain, their anger, their sadness, their joy. This brings home a lot of what many of us take for granted – the quality food we eat, our ability to travel freely, our warm beds, and the support of our government.

Nothing to Envy is many things at once, but most importantly, it is a reality check. While we may be caught up in the fascination of this closed off world, we must also understand that the horrors written in this novel are still ongoing, and no amount of fake smiles or polite diplomatic meetings should conceal that.

“Dr. Kim couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen a bowl of pure white rice. What was the bowl of rice doing there, just sitting on the ground? She figured it out just before she heard the dog’s bark… she couldn’t deny what was staring her plainly in the face: dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea.”

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