Eugenia Kim's 2009 debut novel The Calligrapher's Daughter was based on the life of her mother, who grew up in Japanese-occupied Korea and later emigrated to postwar America to make a new start. "I learned I had no name on the same day I learned fear," says the narrator. She is eventually named Najin and develops into a gutsy and resilient young woman, battling oppression, fighting for education and striving to be more than "merely fodder for a gluttonous assimilation."
That book provided a fascinating portrait of Korean society in the early 20th century. Nearly 10 years on, Kim’s second novel, a sequel of sorts, shines a light on the Korean War and the decades following it. The focus, however, turns out to be not destruction on the battlefields, but division on the home front.
The Kinship of Secrets is once again a work of fiction based on the facts of Kim's family life, in particular that of her sister. On this outing, due to a generational shift, Najin is relegated to a secondary character. Steering the novel are her two daughters, worlds apart from each other and on separate cultural wavelengths, but over time, are thrown back together in a belated bid to bridge gaps and heal wounds.
The Kinship of Secrets opens in 1950 with the rumble of war and the threat of invasion. Inja, nearly four years old, lives in Seoul with her uncle, aunt and grandparents. She is confused by, but also excited about, the daily talk of a communist invasion. Perhaps, at long last, she can get a taste of adventure like her older sibling Miran who, two years previously, was taken halfway across the world to the United States by her parents.
They have still to fulfil their promise and return for her. They send monthly packages as loving reminders, but for Inja her mother and father are now “ghost people” and Miran her “shadow sister”.
Over in Washington, DC, Inja’s family looks on helplessly as war breaks out on the Korean peninsula. Miran learns that “Korea was fighting with itself” and deduces that her relatives must be in trouble. Inja’s father Calvin, a translator and broadcaster at the Voice of America Korean Service, trawls the airwaves for updates on Korean battles and American bombings, while mother Najin collects donations, writes frantic letters, and berates herself for leaving her child behind.
Back in Korea, Inja and her extended family flee the marauding Red Army and head south to Busan with hordes of other refugees. They endure hunger and hard times, but manage to stay strong and intact until the end of hostilities. When they return to Seoul they find the place in disorder. But as the years roll by Inja’s most pressing concern is not the reconstruction of a city she calls home but a reunion with a family she doesn’t know at all.
The Kinship of Secrets unfolds by way of alternating perspectives – one chapter devoted to Inja in Korea, the next to Miran in America. For a novel about separated sisters it constitutes a logical structure. Unfortunately, and maybe inevitably, as there is more at stake in Inja's life, her sections are far and away more absorbing. She is forced to cope with, adapt to and struggle against a whole host of uncomfortable situations. In contrast, Miran's scrapes and adventures are frictionless and conflict-free.
Some of the novel’s middle section feels like padding, with Kim swapping social upheaval and family drama for important but uninvolving milestone events and encounters: births and birthday parties, holidays and anniversaries, new best friends and first boyfriends. By this stage it is clear that Kim is working towards that reunion between both sets of characters and there are moments when we wish she would cut to the chase and deliver.
When she does, the narrative gets back on track and gains momentum. Inja’s parents overcome all costs and complications and fly their daughter out to America. But after 15 years apart, can this young Korean woman reconnect with virtual strangers in a foreign land?
The first third of the novel grips the reader in its depiction of displaced people trying to stay afloat; the last third moves us as we witness a fragmented family attempting to piece itself back together. We read on, rapt, as Inja tackles all manner of differences and does her best to fit into a new way of life.
As if this was not enough, Kim gives her heroine a quandary relating to one of the secrets referred to in the book’s title. To say more would be to spoil all. Suffice to say that Inja as “a keeper of secrets and a teller of lies” must decide if coming clean and imparting the truth to her sister will do good or cause harm.
This is an emotionally wrought and elegantly written novel about longing and belonging, and the trials of rebuilding a country and reforming a family. Kim’s saga sprawls over years and continents, tracks disparate lives, and traces seismic shocks and rifts in modern Korean history. Characters grow up and move with the times, not least Inja. We travel with her on her journey to adulthood and tighter family bonds, all the while remembering, with affection, that little girl who “worried about the thread between her parents and herself and how easily it frayed to nothing.”