Today I want to review a really special and beautiful book: The Kinship of Secrets by Eugenia Kim. It’s one of the most beautiful and moving historical fiction novels I read in a while and has such a precious message!
s y n o p s i s
In 1948, Calvin and Najin Choo travel from Korea to the United States with their youngest child, Miran. All they can think of is to establish themselves in the US and then return for their eldest daughter, Inja. But when in 1950 war breaks out, the chances of the family having a reecountrer are slim to none.
Each sister grows up in a different country; one struggling with being a Korean immigrant in the US, and the other struggling to survive war and the tumultuous post-war years. And Calvin and Najin have to live with their decision to leave a daughter behind, as well as their country and culture.
🌻 I received an e-copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. However, all views are my own 🌻
This book explores so many amazing themes and has some super interesting elements. First, I want to talk about the things I loved in this book…
🌿 Brilliantly described setting
The first thing I look for in a historical fiction book is a well-described setting. What author can pull off writing about a country’s history without ever describing the character’s surroundings?
Luckily, Eugenia Kim throws the reader into Korea perfectly. You can really understand what’s going on around the characters thanks to the clear prose. She describes the muddy roads that head south, the improvised villages built along the way, the food scarcity, and the cold winters perfectly. Not to mention the description of the streets of 1960s and 1970s South Korea and the affluent neighborhoods of the US.
🌿 Vivid portrayals of hunger, scarcity, and poverty
One of the most impressive things to me was how poverty was described. The author did an amazing job turning poverty from the usual way it’s presented (unengagingly and impersonally) into something deeply interesting.
During the war years, food is very, very limited. People have to make do with what they have, even if that means eating things you normally wouldn’t. Since the author makes the people around Inja beg for food, forage for vegetables, and even steal, you can really feel how desperate the situation is. It’s a great example of show-don’t-tell.
I also really loved seeing how poverty affected Inja’s family even after the war. The post-war years certainly were not easy for them and the description of Inja’s birthday party was so heartbreaking. It makes me think of how my family lived three generations ago. Food was meant to last a very long time, meat was saved for the most important occasions, and nothing went to waste. Once again, Eugenia Kim pulls off writing of these years and gives us a heartbreaking picture of what life was like in Korea
🌿 The element of family secrets
I love family secrets in books (and in real life, oops!). I love seeing how some memories are repressed and kept from other people so they don’t get hurt. And this is something very much present in this book. It’s even in the title!
I won’t go into what family secrets exist here, but I’ll tell you that they’re very moving and interesting ones. The bottom line is always this: if person A would know this secret, they would be very hurt, so we keep it from them. I really like how the author connected this element of keeping secrets from the ones you love and twisting the reality to Korean culture. It was such a gentle addition to an already great novel.
“She wanted to say how proud she was to be his daughter, how sorry she was about his lost family in North Korea, but these simple words were too difficult to express.”
Of course, this book is centered on sisterhood. Inja and Miran grow up in very different ways, exposed to completely different cultures, and go through starkly different growing pains. But, in the end (no spoilers!), there’s always that element of sisterhood connecting them.
I loved how birthdays were so significant in the book. For example, these girls were something like 10 months apart and so, for those two months when they were the same age, their mother referred to them as twins. It was so moving to see how important a date can be and how it can help bring people together.
The darkest sides of sisterhood are also present here, which I loved reading! I don’t think the competing side of sisterhood gets all that much representation, but it totally should. I love how Eugenia Kim was not afraid to make these sisters feel jealous, envious, and overall antagonize each other at times. It made their blossoming relationship feel all the more special.
🌿 Close, tight-knit, yet reserved family
With all the secrets that exist, it can sound weird to say that the Choo are a close family. Yet they all love each other so deeply! Once you read about their dynamics, it becomes so hard to say they’re disfunctional. Sure, they keep things from one another, but it’s all done out of love and in good faith. Some truths really are better left unsaid, I believe.
” ‘You are my daughter.’ The moment Najin said this, she heard her own mother’s voice speaking these words, words that hopefully Inja herself would speak one day, words that would echo through the generations. Her heart overflowed with gratitude and love for her mother, and for this gracious and fragile young lady, beside her at last.”
🌿 The immigrant experience in America
The Kinship of Secrets doesn’t neglect the characters in America. it gives them a chance to shine and offers them space to voice their own struggles. When you compare what Inja goes through during the war in Korea and what Miran goes through in the United States, there’s no doubt about who has it worst. But the author doesn’t make this book a suffering competition. Each sister went through great challenges, each in their own way.
While Inja is living in Korea bordering on the poverty line, Miran is in one of the wealthiest countries in the world struggling to find her own identity. Being a South Korean immigrant in the 1950s wasn’t easy on her. From being mistaken for Japanese, to being ashamed at what her family eats, I loved reading from Miran’s point of view.
🌿 How different all the characters are
It was so refreshing seeing these characters act and feel so different. Every character had their own set personality, which also helped me tell them apart at times. Inja, for example, who is raised by her Korean uncle, is just as emotional and in touch with her feeling as he is. Miran, on the other hand, who is raised by her mother in America, is much more closed off, private, and practical — just like her mother! I loved how the author points out how each of the sisters inherited their primary caretaker’s personality, and how that affects them in their adult life.
🌿 Author’s note…
I don’t usually read the author’s note, but this time I read it, and I’m so glad I did. In this two-page author’s note, after the story is done and over with, Kim explains where she got the inspiration to write this story: her own family.
Eugenia Kim’s father left Japanese-occupied Korea to go to the United States, where his wife would join him once she got her papers. But shortly afterward, Japan closed its borders to and from the west, which separated Kim’s parents for a total of nine years. During those years, World War II spread to the East and Kim’s mother was actually imprisoned as a suspected spy given her husband’s connections to the US. Later on, to find his wife, Kim’s dad joined the US Military as a translator when the American forces landed in Korea. No wonder the author created such a heartbreaking and tender story!
She also gives readers a brief backstory of how exactly the conflict between Japan and Korea and between South and North Korea started. For readers who don’t know much about WWII in the Pacific or about Japanese colonialism, then I highly recommend reading these better. You will still understand everything if you don’t have any political knowledge of the region, but I think the story is enriched if you do. So even if you’re not familiar with history and politics, don’t worry! You can still under everything!
Now, I want to talk about some things that I think could have been better/improved…
❄️ More character development
I would have loved to stay with these characters for longer. I think if the book were longer, we would get to know them even better and see how their personalities evolve throughout the years. This is not a major complaint of mine since we did get a lot of time with the characters, but since I loved them so much I guess I just want more.
❄️ More Miran scenes
I think that, if you were to compare how many chapters/words we get to read from Miran’s perspective to how many we have from Inja, the numbers will be skewed. I wish we had gotten to know Miran more. I want to keep reading about her experiences in America. I loved the scenes in which she struggles with forging an identity, but I want to read more of those. I know that the Inja scenes in war-torn Korea have more shock value and maybe more to write about (since it’s an entire culture that most readers aren’t necessarily familiarized with), but still… I guess I want more — yet again!