Sunday, 18 September 2011

Book Review: Nothing to Envy (Barbara Demick)

Book Title: Nothing to Envy
Author: Barbara Demick (2010)

What if the nightmare imagined by George Orwell in 1984 were real? What if you had to live in a country where radio dials were fixed to a single government station? Where the surroundings were entirely black-and-white except for the red lettering of the propaganda signs? Where you were required to keep a large portrait of the president on your living room wall and bow to it on national holidays? Where sexuality was repressed except for purposes of reproduction? Where spies like Orwell’s Thought Police studied your facial expressions during political rallies to make sure you were sincere not only in your speech but your thoughts?

This is just a sample of a review headline praising the merits of this engrossing and page turning book - it reads as a fictional thriller but is hauntingly based on the stories of real people who managed to escape from the shackles of the North Korean tyrannical government. 

Winner of the 2010 Samuel Johnson prize, I picked this book up after reading a positive review of it in the Week ( and it blew me away. It was a fascinating insight into a hidden world, reminiscent of an Orwellian society untouched by any global forces or Western branding. The book's main focus is weaving the stories of 6 residents of Chongjin (North Korea's 3rd largest city) and the result is a beautiful yet harrowing book which offers insights into the culture, geography and politics.

A must read for those who are interested in an alternative world that is often only depicted by images of totalitarian marches and smiling salutes to Kim II-sung the eternal leader or the supreme leader Kim Jong-il.

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