SONJU

In 1946, the inquisitive, forward-thinking 19-year-old Sonju holds onto the hope of “living a modern life” by continuing her education and marrying childhood friend Kungu, whom her parents find unsuitable. Although she dreams of being “equal partners” in a marriage in which both partners have “equal voice,” it quickly becomes clear that her future will be different, as her parents arrange a marriage to a stranger. Her new husband lives in Maari, a strictly traditional village; it takes time for Sonju to adjust to married life in a large extended family, but she grows fond of her sister-in-law and comes to have a tolerable relationship with her husband. Her life is irrevocably changed when she has a daughter, Jinju; just as South Korea moves toward independence from Japan, Sonju vows to raise Jinju as an independent girl, giving her “freedom to explore possibilities.” Sonju also begins to teach local women how to read and write. But as the Korean War breaks out, her dreams for her future are threatened. She and her daughter evacuate but aren’t spared from witnessing horrors of war: “limp bodies reduced to animal flesh, reeking animal stench.” After the war, her marriage unravels after a great loss, and she eventually returns to Seoul, where she rekindles her love for Kungu. Soon, though, she must begin anew once again. Throughout this novel, Chang uses Sonju’s life as a metaphor for the cultural upheaval of Korea in the mid-20th century. She successfully crafts a fully formed protagonist with singular strength and determination, and her prose is measured and thoughtful. She’s particularly adept at conveying emotion through everyday, domestic imagery that readers will appreciate, as when Sonju sadly contemplates the “valleys and mountains” made by the fabric of her wedding gown, mourning days of freedom with her childhood friends; at another point, during her melancholy introduction to her husband’s family home, she notices how the “freshly applied wallpaper with light pink flowers seemed overly hopeful.”

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