Jean’s Pick of the Week: Beasts of a Little Land by Juhea Kim

Korea: 1917-1965

Jade: a young girl sold to a prominent courtesan house by her desperate family

JungHo: a homeless orphan hustling for survival on the streets of Seoul 

Yamada: a well-connected and high-ranking officer in the Japanese army

MyungBo and SungSoo: old friends who find themselves on opposing political sides

Over the course of decades, these disparate characters, from wildly different circumstances, find their fates intertwined in unexpected and heartbreaking ways in Juhea Kim’s dramatic historical novel Beasts of a Little Land.

The book opens in 1917 during the Japanese annexation of Korea. As Japanese troops attempt to make their way down a mountain during a snowstorm, they are saved from a tiger attack by a local Korean villager, a former marksman in the Imperial Korean Army, who had been hunting for food for his starving family. Despite committing atrocities upon Koreans during the occupation, Japanese officer Yamada is guided by a code of ethics that prompts him to give the hunter his cigarette case in payment for saving his life. Years later, JungHo, the hunter’s son, finds the silver cigarette case after his father’s death. Although he is unaware of its significance, JungHo risks everything to keep the case in his possession, a decision that both saves his life and destroys it. 

Driven by desperation, a country family sells their daughter Jade to a courtesan house knowing that relegating her to that life means they will never see her again. After a shocking act of violence, Jade and the courtesan’s daughters Lotus and Luna are sent to live with Dani, the head of the most famous courtesan guild in Seoul. Fate is both kind and cruel to the three girls as their friendships and fortunes wax and wane through the stages of womanhood.

This Korean concept of predestined fate, the ties that irrevocably bind people together throughout their lives, is known as inyeon. Friends betray, lovers leave, families forget, but inyeon – both loving and hateful – keeps the characters in Juhea Kim’s epic novel bound in surprising and inexplicable ways. While the backdrop of Korea’s independence movement may not be familiar to many, the intimate dramas between the characters stir feelings that are both recognizable and relatable. I was completely immersed in this book until the final captivating word.

Life is only bearable because time makes you forget everything. But life is worthwhile because love makes you remember everything.”

Juhea Kim, Beasts of a Little Land

While Beasts of a Little Land wasn’t published in time to make our Staff Favorites booklet this year, it would make an excellent choice for the Read Bigger adult reading program kicking off next month. Beginning January 1st, you can register for the program and find other suggested reads here. Happy reading in 2022!

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