What’s in a Name or Two or Seven?   Leave a comment

The Girl with Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee, subtitled Escape from North Korea, illustrates the author’s determination, grit and luck in her search for a new life. The title comes from the different names the author was given throughout her life, some to appease family members others to ensure her safety.

What began as a lark, just before her 18th birthday, Lee – then known as Min-young – crossed the river from her home in North Korea into China. Such an exercise, if apprehended, was punishable by imprisonment or death.

Initially, the narrative focuses on the author’s early family life: how her parents met, relatives, living conditions and more. Thanks to her father’s job with the government and her mother’s ability to bribe officials, the family fared well. Yet, this is the least interesting part of the book. It isn’t until Min-young faces a new life that the story becomes more engaging.

Changing her name to reflect a connection to China, she must learn a new language, always be on the alert for those who would turn her into the authorities and, generally, protect herself. Eventually, she makes her way to Shanghai, where she spends several years until concocting a plan to seek asylum in South Korea. This is not a decision she makes lightly. After all, her childhood included indoctrination citing that part of Korea as corrupt and barbaric.

Lee’s journey covers more than crossing borders. She endures emotional turmoil, guilt for leaving her family and fear of repercussions if caught.

The Girl with Seven Names: Escape from North Korea
Three-and-a-half Bookmarks
William Collins, 2015
304 pages (including index)

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