Title: All Woman and Springtime
Author: B. W. Jones
Genre: Romance/Cultural/Coming of age
Review: Gyong-Ho is a seamstress. That’s not a euphemism. She works at a machine in a garment factory, with a bullying supervisor, invalided out of the glorious Chochun army, limping around and terrifying the girls only slightly more than the picture of Kim Jong-il on the walls. Gi, a nickname she’ll acquire because of her stammering attempts to get her own name out (Gi-Gi-Gyong) strives truly hard to be worthy of the Dear Leader. She has learned the hard way, what happens if someone somewhere for some obscure reason decides that you’re not.
Gi remembers a time of family. It wasn’t an easy life, but it was a good-enough one. There was sufficient food, just about, most of the time. They tried hard to do what the state asked of them.
Then there was a worse time. A horrendous time in the gulag, a time of starvation, and death and activities that she’d only come to understand years later.
Now she lives in the orphanage, where the mistress seems to be mostly kind, and there is more food than there should be even if it’s still never quite enough. And the work in the factory passes the days; she can meet her quota and escape into the numbers in her head to relieve the boredom or to stop the memories of the past creeping in.
The supervisor watches her and sees a prime party candidate, not that she’ll ever be lucky enough to aspire to such richness given her status.
Gi doesn’t mind; she has a friend: Il-sun. Il-sun was born into a kind of privilege, should such a thing exist north of the 38th parallel… but circumstances took a turn for the worse and she too finds herself in the orphanage. Being very different in beauty and background and temperament, she’s an unlikely one to bond with the sullen, gawky, obedient, passive Gy-ong Ho, but the unlikeliest friendships often become the strongest.
Even the strongest friendships come under strain however as schoolgirls start to become women, something they never do at the same rate. It is the beautiful, wayward, Il-sun who blossoms, who understands the allusions in the forbidden book that falls into their hands, who becomes all woman and sunshine. She knows how to use this allure – but doesn’t realise just how much it can also be used against her.
Il-sun is trapped by her ambition and vanity, Gy-ong Ho by her innocence and boyishness, but both end up on the same forced ‘escape’ through the DMZ into bondage south of the north/south Korean border… where even worse awaits them.
The blurb quotes Alice Walker as calling it one of the most absorbing, chilling, beautifully written and important novels I’ve read in many years, which only makes me wonder what on earth she has been reading. It aspires to those heights but falls well short.
But for an unbelievably unlikely and therefore unsatisfying ending, the storyline is solid. It’s just that isn’t particularly well-worked. Every main character needs a back-story, and Jones makes all the errors of the debut novelist in needing to tell it to us. Often, we could live with just hints of what it might be, and be trusted to work the rest out for ourselves, insofar as it matters to the main plot. Other-times the split-time, two/three-strand approach might have served better, so that we could watch people becoming who they are, rather than having it expounded after the fact.
Similarly having got four disparate women into the hands of the traffickers, he feels the need to try to follow all of their stories, but can’t do so without having to jerk us back and forward, to cover all of the time period for each of them. A stronger approach might have been to stay with his protagonist and have her learn piecemeal what happened to the others, but he seems the need to fill in all the shades of horror that might occur and so needs to follow each woman through a different variation and a different reaction to it, so that we can have not unexplored alternatives.
Rather than strengthen the novel, for me this weakened it. I was asked to empathise on too many different levels. The characters were too different and their responses weren’t always consistent within themselves. I couldn’t stay, where I wanted to, which was with the traumatised, mathematically philosophical Gi, who’d taught herself to accept the irrationality of her homeland.
That’s not to say the others are mere ciphers or unnecessary. They are the counterpoints that serve to show that how the enthusiastic self-brain-washing of the innocents under a totalitarian regime can be an intelligent survival strategy. Between them they show the variant ways of rebelling.
As a spotlight on North Korea, a place it must be said that the author only knows from the outside, it shows us what we might expect to find, with no credentials to back-up the likely truth of it. As a tale of the global sex-traffic-trade, it throws in the requisite sordid scenes, run by a mix of gangland thugs and disillusioned failed (?) businessmen. No surprises there either.
The whole is held together by the plot lurking behind it, and by the character of Gyong-Ho, her unlikely innocence and hidden strength. She is the one you really want to survive and the one least likely to do so. It’s enough to keep you turning the pages, but I can’t help feeling that there is a much stronger book lurking behind the one we’ve been given.
As is the way of some publishers, Phoenix include suggested ‘book club’ topics for discussion. One of these asks us to consider whether, if we’d known from the outset that the author was a man, it would have affected the way our reading. This makes the assumption that it isn’t possible to tell.
I don’t subscribe to the view that you can always tell the gender of an author from their work, and certainly not to the view that it matters anyway per se, but I can’t help thinking that this one, written by a woman, would have been a very different book: one with less narrative and more emotion.
And irrespective of the author’s gender, that is the book that it should have been.
Buy it here: