Everything Belongs to Us
When I was presented with the opportunity to read Everything Belongs to Us, I never faltered. The book was described as being set in South Korea during the darkest hour of the areaís ďeconomic miracle. Iím a fan of historical fiction and I must confess that I really donít know all that much about Korea, so it was a no-brainer for me.
Everything Belongs to Us begins in 1978, during a period of time when South Korea is still recovering from the losses of the Korean War. American soldiers still abound and change is in the air. Two childhood friends find themselves accepted to Seoul University. Jisun Ahnís path to university is much different from that of Namin Kang. Jisun is the daughter of a powerful business mogul who grew up in luxury and never worried for food or shelter. Namin is the second child of street food peddlers whose sister works in the local factory and whose polio-stricken brother was sent away to live with her grandparents in a remote village before she was eight years old. Naminís family works hard for what they earn, often going without to ensure that Namin can go to the elite school Ė their future now depends on her success.
The problems begin for Jisun and Naminís friendship when Namin tries for The Circle, an elite group of SNU students, led by Jisunís brother. Jisun shuns what she considers the bourgeois world, in preference to being a student activist to help gain factory workers rights. She quickly falls in love with the American leader of the activist group, but is shunned by him for her overzealous actions during a workersí strike. Meanwhile, Namin meets Sunam, another Circle hopeful, and falls in love, continuing the relationship even when he is drummed out of contention.
Namin and Jisun are at odds with each other in purpose and strengths. While both will stop at nothing to attain their goals, their paths and means are so very different. Jisunís path is somewhat destructive and rebellious, while Naminís is determined and unshakeable. She would even walk away from love if it became an impediment to her path to achievement, so important it is for her to succeed and raise her family up in status. As they grow apart, Sunam is caught in between, caring for both in very different ways. Sometimes he finds himself closer in nature to Jusin than Namin, and it is that thought, along with the arrival of Naminís long lost sister that brings all of their worlds crashing down around them.
Thereís a lot going on in Everything Belongs to Us. There are two separate love stories, though none really seem all that adequate for those pursuing that love. There is a story of rebellion Ė rebellion against the constraints of class, rebellion against parents, rebellion against poverty and against riches. There is a tale of determination Ė Naminís determination is the one that stands out, because she is willing to do what it takes for her familyís betterment. This is also a tale of betrayal, both actual and perceived.
I enjoyed the fact that it all starts and ends in Sunamís perspective. He touches the lives of both girls and is often the glue that holds their tenuous relationship together. In the end, he destroys it, just as he seems to destroy everything he attempts involvement in. Sunam never seems to make the right choices in the book and we see him less as a main character and more as a facilitator for the other characters. But in the end, it is Sunam who explains where Jisun and Naminís paths have taken them.
All through the book, I kept trying to figure out where the author was going with it all. Was this supposed to be a romance? Was it supposed to be a tale of rising up in the face of adversity? What was Everything Belongs to Us about? In the end, I can only describe this as an intriguing piece of historical fiction with characters who are flawed but mostly mean well. You will find yourself rooting for Namin and Jisun and in turn, berating them for their mistakes and perceived callousness. Both characters are more alike than they think.
And yet, though the book was intriguing, there always felt like something was missing. I canít exactly put my finger on just what that was, but once I finished the book, I was left with a minor feeling of disappointment, like I missed out on something.