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A River in Darkness Review

A River in Darkness book review

A River in Darkness is a tough read.

And I don’t mean that the writing is complicated.

Ishikawa’s memoirs left me truly numb. Not since Hardy’s Jude the Obscure have I felt this disturbed by a text.

But here’s the thing – A River in Darkness isn’t fiction.

It’s a sombre tale of how a country inflicted (and continues to inflict) poverty, starvation, and death upon its own populace. Ishikawa did escape, but not without suffering immense loss.

These are memoirs of real life inside the most secretive country in the world. And this is partly the reason I would implore you pick up a copy of A River in Darkness.

In Brief

Masaji Ishikawa’s tale recounts how he and his family left everything behind to move from Japan to North Korea.

Born to a Japanese mother and Korean father, Ishikawa’s family face racism, lack of opportunities, and hostility in their hometown of Kawasaki, Japan.

So, when North Korea initiates a large-scale repatriation of Korean nationals, Ishikawa’s father jumps at the opportunity to ‘return’ to North Korea, despite never having been there.

“For most displaced Koreans living in Japan at the time, the key point was a much simpler promise: “If you come back to your homeland, the government will guarantee you a stable life and a first-class education for your children.”

Like most despotic regimes, Kim Il Sung’s North Korea promised ‘paradise’, a land of milk and honey with opportunities for work and education. Considering the situation of Ishikawa’s family, it’s at least understandable why the family made the move.

What awaited the family was beyond their comprehension – and my own.

A midnight of civilisation.

From Social Outcasts to Poverty-Stricken

“An orchestra was playing on the dock, its music thin and haunting. Welcome to North Korea!”

What amazes me about A River in Darkness is how lucidly the tale is told.

I suspect part of this is down to the bitterness Ishikawa harbours, following his 36-year stay in North Korea.

The dreadful day-to-day is documented and conveyed in a straightforward manner.

Ishikawa’s family lived in squalor, working to the bone for scraps of rice that were not nearly enough to feed everyone. Most people didn’t have houses, and officials would routinely beat people for their possessions.

At one point, Ishikawa is beaten senseless – by his teacher – for being, and I quote, ‘A Japanese bastard’.

To my younger readers, picture Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, but the whole country outside of Pyongyang lives in District 12 (after it has been bombed by The Capitol).

A River in Darkness flows well, with economical prose, and if you’re not overly familiar with the history of North Korea, you’ll find it quite educational. Just keep in mind that the text was published in 2000, so it’s slightly out-of-date.

Nonetheless, the book offers a surface-level understanding of underlying tensions in the East. Specifically, the political relationship between Japan and North Korea, but also China’s role in the region.

Final Verdict ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

I cannot give this book any less than a 5* rating.

It’s emotionally exhausting and for that reason I think it’ll be a while before I pick it up again.

But for me at least, A River in Darkness is a world view-altering piece of non-fiction.

If you’re interested in North Korea, you must read this. But be warned, you may find much of it upsetting.

Have you read A River in Darkness? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

*For more information on the Tales from Absurdia rating scale, please read the review rating system.

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