If I hadn't known that this was a true story, I wouldn't have believed it could have happened. If it had been a thriller I'd have been saying 'Come on, you expect me to believe this?!' The number of near misses and strokes of luck were incredible - but at the same time it made me realise how many North Korean defectors must fail along the way. If it is this difficult and so many people are just trying to trip you up, then it is amazing that anyone succeeds.
Hyeonseo Lee didn't even mean to leave North Korea, she realised that she could get away with things as a child, that would become illegal once she turned eighteen. So she decided to take her last chance to visit China, just over the river from her home, while she was still seventeen. Unfortunately she timed her visit badly and was away for a vital census - now it was impossible for her to return.
For the next ten years she lived a life of deception and secrecy in China, missing her mother and brother intensely. She had to learn Mandarin Chinese and unlearn her North Korean habits for fear they would give her away. Defectors are regularly returned by the Chinese government and their fates, once back home, are beatings and torture in prison camps.
Hyeonseo's memoir describes how she eventually decides to live in South Korea, a country that she had been indoctrinated to think of as 'The Enemy' all her life, and how she makes a harrowing journey to bring her mother and brother to South Korea too.
This is a truly amazing story of courage and it is worth viewing her twelve minute TED talk on You Tube as well.
Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick (5 stars)