“Slave. Escape artist. Murderer. Terrorist. Spy. Lover. Mother.” Seven identities are listed on the cover of the outstanding first novel from Mirinae Lee, which lays out the incredible historical circumstances that would allow such a multifaceted life. The majority of 8 Lives of a Century-Old Trickster is split into short stories that can be admired independently; and in fact, several have been published elsewhere as standalone pieces. But as a whole, the narrative is all the more powerful.
Working at the Golden Sunset senior living center in the South Korean countryside, Lee Sae-ri has the idea to start an obituary writing program for residents. She soon meets Mook Miran, a 98-year-old woman living in the wing that houses many people with Alzheimer’s disease. Despite this, Ms Mook is strong-willed and witty, and her memory is remarkably intact.
And thankfully so, for she has a lot of stories to share, and each chapter explores one of her “lives.” Ms Mook has survived brutal experiences, such as being sexually enslaved by the Japanese military as a “comfort woman” during World War II. By the end, the reader is left with an intensely vivid picture of both North and South Korea during the mid-20th century, throughout multiple wars and times of national chaos.
The brilliant manner in which Lee sequences her narrative doles out Ms Mook’s story in bits and pieces, making the journey uniquely interactive for the reader. Beautiful and at times experimental prose flows in and out of first and third person as Lee shifts among perspectives and time periods. Lee drew inspiration from her own great-aunt, one of the oldest women to escape alone from North Korea, and the result is one of the most complex characters I’ve encountered in some time. 8 Lives of a Century-Old Trickster is enticing, profound and deeply moving, a testament both to Lee’s skill and the courage of her ancestor.