A story of love, war, and redemption set against the backdrop of the Korean independence movement, following the intertwined fates of a young girl sold to a courtesan school and the penniless son of a hunter.
Kim’s style oscillates between the high/low requirements of her characters: the prose can be omniscient and baroque, offering a drone’s eye view over the highborn, and street-level plain when it comes to urchins ... No ink is wasted on the mundane travails of the average citizen. Everyone is extraordinary, a singular beast in exceptional times, and in Kim’s capable hands this liberty pays off. The plot sweeps us along ... Kim’s choice to bypass the Korean War feels canny and confident, as if to remind us that this is not a history lesson ... Beasts of a Little Land is a stunning achievement. Juhea Kim wrestles with the chaos of a half-century of love, idealism, war and violence, and does so with courage and wisdom.
... [a] beautiful book ... The writing has a dreamlike quality that immerses the reader in a fascinating world ... Not only is this a gorgeously written story, but Kim also gives us insight into a historical period with which many Westerners will be unfamiliar. The casual cruelty of the Japanese military, as they allow the Korean peasants to starve, and the indifference of the Americans and Europeans to their plight, provide a justifiable rationale for some Koreans, including JungHo, to turn to communism and the Soviet Union for help in achieving justice. The tiger—an elusive, majestic creature—is a fitting symbol for these courageous people as they face their doom.
If Juhea Kim’s Beasts of a Little Land were filmed, you’d want to see it in theaters, with a giant screen and a sweeping soundtrack. Military campaigns, anti-capitalist gatherings, orphan girls groomed into world-famous courtesans, street rats rising to glory, all against the backdrop of Korea’s tumultuous 20th century – the cast grows large and the storyline reaches far ... You wouldn’t know from reading it that Beasts of a Little Land is Kim’s debut novel. There is no shortage of ambition on display here, and fleet-footed narrative pacing to match it ... Kim drops her characters into interesting scenes but often leaves them inert, as if we’re watching a filmstrip. The narrative describes their internal states at length, but action feels muddy and distant. The effect is that the book can feel like it’s written in synopsis, that we’re getting the digested version of the characters’ raw experience ... Still, this is a book written with warmth, wisdom, and an inherent sense for the dramatic. Readers who take to its style will gladly follow the tangled lives of its charismatic cast.