Juhea Kim’s accomplished first novel, Beasts of a Little Land, opens in 1917, deep in the frozen Korean wilderness, where a penniless hunter saves a young Japanese military officer from a vicious tiger. The act sets in motion a story that spans half a century and explores the peninsula’s complex history of Japanese occupation, multiple wars and South Korea’s anti-communism purges of the early 1960s.
The novel artfully follows the life of Jade, a girl from an impoverished family who goes to work as a servant for a courtesan, Madame Silver. There she meets two other young women: quietly beautiful Luna and brash, outspoken Lotus. The three eventually come to Seoul, where they study the art of pleasing men at one of the city’s most celebrated and cosmopolitan houses.
Jade’s wit and intelligence take her to the very peak of high society and even into the Korean film industry, while Luna and Lotus struggle through careers marred by sexual assault and drug use. As the three women strive for independence, they are continually disappointed by the men closest to them, including loyal gang leader JungHo, who befriends Jade when they are children, and ambitious rickshaw driver HanChol, who becomes Jade’s lover but refuses to marry her. Jade and Lotus spurn the lavish attentions of wealthy but superficial SungSoo, and at the same time, SungSoo’s school friend MyungBo tries to involve Jade and JungHo in his revolutionary plans for Korean independence from Japan.
One of Kim’s core strengths is casting 20th-century Korea’s civic and social history as vital while never losing sight of her characters’ emotions. As the paths of her characters twist and cross, albeit with far too many coincidences, and their fortunes rise and fall, she keeps the weight of the personal and political in perfect balance. Beasts of a Little Land is epic in range but intimate in emotional depth, sure to appeal to readers of historical fiction who prize a well-wrought character.