The Voices of Heaven is the first book I've finished in this new year, and although I'm about a dozen reviews behind, I can not delay this one. It moves to the head of the line, and I must thank Johanna Ramos-Boyer for sending me such a lovely book.
This may be a long and wandering excuse for a review, so I will give a brief synopsis and mention that I found the book fascinating, touching, informative, and beautifully written.
My overview of the book:
The story begins right before North Korea invades South Korea in 1950. Although the threat of war hangs in the air, for the most part, life in Seoul is going on as usual.
The focus is on a couple who have been happily married for 15 years, but who have had no son. Mi-na, their young daughter, was adopted, but this secret has been kept from her, and Mi-na feels that she has failed her parents by not having been born a boy. When the grandmother tells Gui-Yong that he must take a "second wife," he submits knowing that his duty is to produce a son; yet he dreads hurting Eum-Chun, his beloved wife, and the entire situation.
Everyone tries hard to make the new family work, but everyone suffers. The fact that each member of the new family does his or her best to find a way to exist does not change the suffering of Gui-Young, Eum-Chun, or Soo-Yang (the "second wife"), all of whom feel obligated to follow tradition. Mi-Na must also learn to share her father and to accept the fact that she is partly responsible for the situation by not having been born a boy. The entire family keeps Mi-Na's adoption secret thinking to protect her, but unintentionally giving her a far greater burden. Yet because all of those involved are good people, we become invested in each of them and in their efforts to cope.
The novel moves from the period right before the war, through the war itself, and for decades afterward.
Voices of Heaven is a remarkable novel. I guess I always thought of the Korean War as having taken place just outside of the tents of M*A*S*H, both the film and the television series. How limiting. This novel gives insight into a culture that, in spite of the long Japanese Occupation, still retained traditions from the Joseon Dynasty--profoundly different from our own culture in social norms and mores, religion, family structure, and daily life.
If you have read this blog regularly, you know that I'm a fan of Korean drama, and in watching these shows, especially contemporary drama, I've always been fascinated by social mores that still exist in South Korea--a country that is so modern, so technologically advanced, so fashionable, and in many ways, so Westernized and globally conscious. Reading this novel has given me a much better context in which to place current events.
South Korea is both so modernized and so steeped in traditional thought. The importance of sons, the authority of family, the role of women--still have great impact. The continuing residue of the Korean War and the ever-present threat of the craziness of North Korea can't help but have an influence. A tiny country surrounded by North Korea, Russia, Japan, and China that has managed great economic recovery and global significance, despite is size and devastating history. Yet, in many ways, our (Western) awareness and knowledge of South Korea is minimal.
The popularity of South Korea's film and television industries have made many more people conscious of South Korea, but Voices of Heaven provides not only a fascinating story of family, but also a more authentic glimpse of individual struggles and of both the positives and the negatives of Korean tradition.
I loved this book and its characters. I'm grateful to Johanna Ramos-Boyer of JRB Communications for sharing this book with me and to Maija Rhee Devine for writing such a wonderful, thoughtful, and sensitive novel.
Literature/Historic Fiction. 2013. 316 pages.