Princess Bari, by Hwang Sok-yong (translated by Sora Kim-Russell) tells the story of a young girl from North Korea who is named after the legendary princess. The seventh daughter of a couple desperate to have a son, she is abandoned in the woods by her mother at birth before being rescued by her grandmother who gives her the name. Throughout her life she turns to her grandmother for help and advice, even after the old woman’s death.
Bari’s early life is as settled and happy as could be hoped for given the time and place in which she lives. Her father is astute in providing for his large family. With difficulty they survive a devastating famine but he is brought down by the actions of a relative. The family is fractured with Bari escaping to China with her grandmother and one of her sisters.
From here Bari’s life is a series of challenges. She is fortunate in her friendships, training as a masseuse and finding work at which she excels. However, as an illegal immigrant she is always at risk of deportation. Clampdowns in China lead her to seek her fortune elsewhere and she endures horror and degradation travelling to England as a stowaway in the hold of a container ship. Life in London, alone amongst the many other colours, religions and cultures, presents difficulties of its own.
The first half of the book is set in Korea and China with the second half set in England. Bari’s precarious position in society means that the contrasts are not as pronounced as one may imagine. Always she must live under the radar of the authorities, relying on the kindness of strangers from many backgrounds. She works hard, has some luck, but must also endure personal tragedy.
The plot is interspersed with dreams as Bari has a gift that enables her spirit to see other’s pasts, to talk to animals and to the dead. She believes that she is destined to live the life of her namesake. Her dreams are told as stories woven around the main plot.
The style of writing is conversational. The theme throughout is one of endurance, of the risks people will take to survive as they search for a better life. There are no demands for sympathy. The people Bari meets come from varied countries, cultures and backgrounds but are presented as human, the same except in how they treat others.
In the current climate of increased nationalism, demonisation of immigrants, and encouragement in the media to blame large swathes of society en masse, this is a sobering story. It does not preach but enlightens making the reader think about their attitudes and how they are manipulated by those whose aim is to retain and improve their own position.
The subject matter may be grim in places but this tale reads as a contemporary fable. It offers hope that if we treat others well we have a chance of a better life for all.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Periscope.