Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick – Book Review

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
Published by Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House

In the futuristic dystopia imagined in 1984, George Orwell wrote of a world where the only color to be found was in the propaganda posters. Such is the case in North Korea. –p. 11

One of the hardest countries to get a look inside is North Korea. Closed off since the Korean War, North Korea initially seemed to be doing better, financially than its cousin to the South. Pyongyan, the one city where visitors occasionally came, was filled with only those inhabitants who would make a good impression on outsiders, but even outside of the capital city most North Koreans believed for many years that their lives were as good or better than those of most of the world’s inhabitants. All this began to change with the famine in the 1990s, however. As people began to starve to death, they took increased risks and increasingly subverted the state that had held them captive for so long. Crossing illegally into China to work or trade for food gave many North Koreans a glimpse of what life was like in the rest of the world. It was only at this time that defections began in earnest.

In Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, Barbara Demick chronicles the lives of a variety of North Koreans who eventually defected to South Korea. All came from different family situations in the stratified North Korean society, and all initially had varying degrees of dedication to the state, but all initially believed the propaganda they were fed. How could they not, after all? None of the outside world penetrates North Korea enough to show anything different. Plus, any resistance would mean repercussions not only on the protester his or herself, but on all other known relatives.

Demick interweaves her subject’s stories in such a way that is simultaneously fascinating and horrifying. Alternating stories could have made Nothing to Envy choppy, but it is done skillfully with good transitions, so that instead it serves to keep the reader’s interest and keep any of the subjects from fading into the background.

For a general overview of the day-to-day lives so North Koreans, plus fantastic background to the situation, beginning with the end of WWII, I cannot recommend Nothing to Envy highly enough.

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4 comments to Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick – Book Review

  • This book does sound really good. Good review!

  • Caite

    I am not usually a fan of non-fiction, but this sounds so interesting. Sad and interesting.

  • I was lucky enough to have been chosen to narrate this book, as I might not have picked it up otherwise. Demick does a wonderful job of factual storytelling. She continues to write for the LA Times in Asia, and I always look for her byline. I highly recommend this eye-opening book. And the audiobook version, of course 😉